The meat displayed on the shelves of butcher shops, grocery stores, and supermarket chains rarely goes to waste. Here’s why.
Butchers, whether in their own store or in the meat department of the grocery store, generally do a good job of stocking “just enough” meat to meet customer demand—no pun intended—without spoilage and waste.
Of course, there is no perfect formula for figuring out how many beef shanks, pork chops, and bird breasts will sell from week to week. Sure, certain occasions call for certain cuts of meat (turkey at Thanksgiving, for example), but demand during the rest of the year is less predictable.
It’s inevitable that there’s going to be at least a bit of meat that doesn’t make it out the door as quickly as your friendly neighborhood anticipated. So what happens to all of that meat?
You might be surprised by what we uncovered and are about to share with you share below!
What Do Butchers Do With Unsold Meat?
Present-day butchers are masters of the art and craft of meat buying, meat cutting, and meat tying, among other things.
Not only do they know how to process whole carcasses into delicious cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, or game that end up on your plate for dinner, but they also know how to move that meat from their display case to your kitchen as safely and as quickly as possible.
Like we mentioned a moment ago, though, there’s no exact way of knowing how much meat a butcher shop is going to move on a weekly basis, or even a daily basis.
There’s always a risk, especially with food products as perishable as meat. Here’s a quick rundown of everything that can happen to unsold meat at the butcher shop:
Cased “fancy cuts” can be rotated for three days”
At most butcher shops, meat deliveries are made at least twice a week (shops with more foot traffic or an online storefront may get their meat delivered to them three times or so).
This means that new meat is rotated in on a three-day basis, with the freshest stuff inevitably landing in the glass display cases and given the superstar treatment.
If meat in those cases do not sell, though, they aren’t tossed—at least not right away. Instead, they get wrapped up in butcher paper and moved into commercial refrigerators.
Contrary to what many of us think, the meat doesn’t get frozen. A lot of freezing and thawing destroys the cellular structure of meat and makes it really unpalatable in a hurry. These commercial refrigerators are usually pegged at about 35°F, a temperature that’s cold enough to keep meat fresh without ruining its aroma, flavor, or texture.
This “case meat” can be rotated in and out for display for about three days before something else has to happen.
The next step is marinating the meat
That “something else has to happen” step almost inevitably involves marinating meat to extend its shelf life.
If you’ve ever seen those packages of marinated stakes, marinated kebabs, or marinated chops, the odds are pretty good you’re looking at “case meat” that has been swapped out for something fresher.
This meat, especially at reputable butchers, is still considered a high-quality product; it’s safe to eat, tastes great, and saves you the time of marinating it yourself at home. You can probably even get it at a cheaper price!
Beef usually gets ground up
Beef that doesn’t make it to the marination stage is usually going to be ground up into hamburgers. This approach allows the meat to make it into the freezer (if necessary) without messing too much with the taste and texture.
Butchers can dramatically extend the shelf life of beef like this, stretching what would have otherwise expired within five days or so to something that can last 10 days or longer with proper refrigeration and freezing.
Fire sale right before expiration
You’ll know that certain cuts are two or three days away from their best-by or sell-by date when butchers start dramatically reducing the price with a fire sale.
Most butcher shops (and a lot of grocery store departments) have a section of their cooler dedicated to these kinds of products. It’s not at all uncommon to see orange stickers announcing the fire sale, usually with a “Butcher Special” or “Manager Special” designation.
If you’re not particular about the kind of meat you’re looking for that day but just want something highly affordable, downright delicious, and still totally safe to eat, this is where you’ll want to do your shopping.
You can snap up deals good for anywhere between 20% and 50% (or more) off of traditional retail prices on a regular basis.
Butchers might take a cut or two home
It should come as no surprise to anybody that sometimes butchers take meat that would have otherwise been pitched in the bin home with them as a perk of the job.
This may or may not be “officially sanctioned” by the company employing the butcher—unless of course they own the butcher shop themselves—but it does happen, and it happens more frequently than most butchers care to admit!
Butchers end up with a bit of a grab bag of cuts because they never know what’s going to make it to this stage of the game, but they generally eat pretty well.
Some butchers work with pet food companies
Many of the bigger grocery stores and store chains have partnerships with third-party organizations to handle food waste products, especially food that can be turned into dog or cat food, or agricultural fee.
Some local operations even have relationships with local farmers and suppliers. They send this food back to be used on those farms knowing that it’s going to be food for meat-bearing animals that aligned upon those store shelves again later down the line!
Sadly, sometimes unsold meat ends up getting pitched
Unfortunately, sometimes meat at the butcher shop just ends up getting tossed in the bin.
Obviously, commercial businesses are trying to eliminate as much waste as possible. It eats into profit margins, especially when you’re talking about something as expensive as beef, pork, birds, and the like.
Some waste, though, is inevitable. You hate to see it—butchers hated more than anybody else, as unsold meat is unrealized profit—but it happens all the time.
What About Other Butcher Byproducts?
Meat isn’t the only thing that butchers have to keep an eye on or get rid of on a regular basis, either.
Cutting scraps—bits of fat, silver skin, chunks of meat that are trimmed off of cuts—are often reused in different products.
Sometimes, they make it into ground beef. Other times, they make it into sausage. In grocery stores with a kitchen and a hot food counter, they may even make it into soups, stews, and braises cooked on-site.
Cardboard and packaging
Cardboard and other packaging materials (especially the insulated boxes used to transport meat products) are reused and recycled whenever possible.
Shrinkwrap usually gets recycled, too – as well as any other bits of plastic, aluminum, or recyclable materials that can be separated out from meat and food products.
At the end of the day, butchers are always looking to minimize waste as much as possible!