What’s for Dinner? Piedmontese Beef from Heartland Meats
Regarding food, most of us used to ask just one simple question: “What’s for dinner?” But in these enlightened times, we now realize the implications of how we nourish ourselves reach far beyond health and personal preference, into political, environmental, and moral territory.
We still want to know what’s for dinner, but we also want to know a whole lot more: Where was it grown? How was it transported? Under what conditions was it produced? Does it contain chemical additives? Will it raise my cholesterol level or cause an allergic reaction? Can I afford it? And, by the way, how does it taste?
John Sondgeroth of Heartland Meats, Inc. thinks you deserve to know the answers to all these questions. He and his wife, Pat, raise all-natural, hormone-free beef on an American Humane Certified family farm in Mendota, Illinois. The cattle are started on grass and finished on non-genetically-modified corn silage grown right on the farm, slaughtered locally and returned to the on-site processing plant, which is visited by federal inspectors five days a week.
There, the meat is individually vacuum-packaged and fresh frozen with no added sodium, preservatives, tenderizers or flavor enhancers, and sold direct to consumers at three of Chicago’s top-ranked farmers’ markets: Chicago’s Green City Market, the Evanston Farmers’ Market, and the Oak Park Farmers’ Market.
“From our farm gate to your dinner plate,” John Sondgeroth says, handing me a package of Heartland’s signature lean, tasty Piedmontese beef.
“We’re fourth-generation farmers,” he explains. The Sondgeroth family has owned a 1,400-acre plot in this rural area, 100 miles southwest of Chicago, since 1903. The farm passed from his great-grandfather to his grandfather and father, who continued to build and improve the farm over the years. Dad still keeps a watchful eye, but John took the helm in 1987.
Corn and soybeans are their cash crops, providing both the capital and the feed for the 300–400 head of cattle they raise every year. Their intention is to diversify to meet 21st century demand for lean, healthy, hormone-free beef.
“Taste, texture, consistency. That’s what keeps the customers coming back,” Sondgeroth says, as wife Pat sells one of their regulars an appetizing package of flank steak. A taste of Piedmontese beef from a supplier hooked them on the breed and the business. Italy’s number one beef breed originated in the Piedmont region. It was introduced in North America in the early 1980s, when health concerns over fat content in the all-American meat-and-potatoes diet created a demand for lean meat. Piedmontese is naturally lean, but tender and remarkably flavorful.
No Grades or Sell-By Dates
Heartland’s beef doesn’t carry a grade like the beef you’d buy in the grocery store. The grading system is based on marbling — the amount and distribution of fat within lean meat. In that context, their product would be labeled Select Plus — below several levels of the Prime and Choice cuts preferred by consumers. “But it tastes like prime,” Sondgeroth asserts. “You can cut it with a dinner knife.” For these attributes, he credits the cattle’s feed, the farm’s production methods, and the breed itself.
Something else you won’t see on the Heartland label is a “Sell-By” date. Fresh beef sold in grocery stores is dated because the quality of the product deteriorates, and refrigeration merely retards the growth of bacteria. But Heartland’s fresh-frozen, vacuum-packed meats are, as Sondgeroth explains, frozen not only in temperature but also in time. “The beef you buy in the grocery store has an expiration date. This package of meat [from Heartland Meats] can be stored in your freezer and eaten indefinitely.”
Sondgeroth’s statement raises questions as to the safety of the refrigerated and frozen meat we purchase at our local retailers. According to the USDA, daily inspection of any slaughterhouse that ships meat across state lines is mandatory. Product dating and grading of beef are voluntary, however.
Meat plants that ship intrastate are subject to state authority — and state requirements are, by law, at least equal to federal inspection laws. That should give all of us consumers peace of mind, right? Not really. Once the bulk shipments arrive at their final destination — the retail establishment where you shop — there’s no federal or state oversight.
“That’s the scary part for consumers,” Pat Sondgeroth says. “The meat-cutting department at your local butcher shop or grocery store isn’t required to send samples of their ground beef product to be tested for E. coli.” (Heartland Meats voluntarily sends samples for testing.) “If the temperature in the cutting room is too high, or the grinder isn’t cleaned properly, that ground beef could become contaminated.
If you purchase an individually wrapped portion of meat from Heartland Meats or any other product bearing an inspection label from the U.S Department of Agriculture, you have the assurance that the processor who shipped the meat is inspected every day they cut and process meat.
A Different Kind of Satisfaction
The Sondgeroths could opt to ship their cattle off to be slaughtered, butchered, and processed for less cost than having them slaughtered locally and returned to the farm for processing. That might enable them to turn a profit from the beef operation — something they aspire to in the future.
But for now, though not operating in the black, they have the satisfaction of producing meat that is heart-healthy, safe, tender, and tasty. The product that carries their name comes from the same animals they raised humanely on their farm, eating feed the family grew themselves and served with a little molasses sprinkled on top.
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