How much fat is REALLY in your ground beef? Valley grocery stores put to the test

When you buy ground beef, the less fat, the more you pay, but the ABC15 Investigators found, at some Valley grocery stores, the fat content on the label doesn't always match what's in the meat.

The ABC15 Investigators went undercover to expose a government investigation and bring you some grocery store secrets from a former butcher.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required ground beef labels for bigger grocery stores.

And the less fat, the more you pay and that could mean a couple of bucks more a pound every time.

So, what if all the meat was the same?

Larry Solberg is a former butcher at AJ's Fine Foods.

He said he was fired after 15 years of working there. Solberg claims it was for raising concerns about what he calls a routine practice.

"What we were doing is taking all of the cuts of the steaks, throwing them in a big grinder, grinding the product through and just putting it in the case. Chuck could have been round, round could have been chuck. The customers were being misled by what we were selling."

Solberg said it was a shortcut because AJ's does have a policy of measuring fat content and recording it. He learned that when he trained at the Arrowhead location.

Since then, he has worked at five other locations and none of them ever followed the policy.

Solberg told us that sometimes customers were misled when it came to the expensive ground American Kobe beef sold at $6.99 a pound. He said at times it was the same as regular ground chuck.

He said they would sell more American Kobe than they ordered.

The ABC15 Investigators have confirmed the government is looking into AJ's Fine Foods. The USDA's Food and Inspection Service has an "open investigation."

In a statement AJ's wrote, "If or when we learn of an issue, we investigate and if necessary, immediately resolve the issue." They state they maintain "strict and consistent standards" and the Mr. Solberg was dismissed in January on an unrelated issue.

The Test

We bought ground beef with various fat amounts at Fry's, Safeway, Albertsons and AJ's Fine Food stores across the Valley.

We sent it to a certified laboratory for a fat check.

While some samples showed less fat than what was written on the label, nearly half of the meat we bought, 11 out of 24, had more fat than the label showed.

Some were only slightly over the fat amount.

But at the Albertsons on West Ray Road and McClintock in Chandler, the test showed the ground beef labeled 7% fat actually had 12.2%. Their ground beef with 15 % fat actually had 19.6% fat and their ground beef with 20% fat actually had 24.2% fat.

Stores Respond

Albertsons

At Albertsons Market, the integrity of the products that we sell is one of our highest priorities, and we take every product quality issue very seriously.

 The ground beef packages labeled 93% lean and 80% lean are shipped to our stores from two different suppliers, and if they are not already packaged for the sales floor, they are packaged after being processed through the butcher block grinder one time.  Nothing is added to the grind at our store, and the lean-to-fat percentage is under the close monitoring of the vendors who provide it.  Our 85% lean ground beef may contain primal beef trimmings from our butcher block; however, the types of trimmings are limited to specific types of meat, none of which would normally exceed an 85% lean-to-fat content.

 It is our understanding that one store's ground beef samples were outside of the lean-to-fat tolerances set by the station's test.  As a result of the information from our suppliers and our own internal review, we feel this is an isolated incident and not indicative of the lean-to-fat ratios of our ground beef program. Our butcher block training programs are designed to ensure that all associates who are responsible for packaging fresh ground beef for our private label brand understand and comply with our standards to ensure our products conform to the lean-to-fat percentage declaration listed on the labels.

At the AJ's near Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, the tests showed the ground beef with 10% fat actually had 13.5% fat.

That was no surprise to Solberg. "They're all supposed to be tested for fat content," said Solberg, " AJ's did not do that."

AJ's Fine Foods

At AJ's, we only provide the finest gourmet quality to our guests. We buy the best steak cuts and grind them in-house – without additives or fillers. Our stores use a machine made by Hobart to measure the fat content percentage of our meat. (See attached Hobart equipment instructions.) When our meat departments grind steak, they are doing it in large, 10 lb. to 60 lb. batches. In order to obtain an accurate fat content result (of plus or minus 1%), the Hobart equipment instructions indicate that 3-4 thoroughly-mixed samples must be taken. Any deviation from this (such as only taking one sample) may reflect an exception. Our policy states that every batch of ground steak that we produce be tested; two managers are required to verify the results of each fat content test in order to confirm the proper lean percentage/fat content percentage for the label.

Mr. Solberg was dismissed in January of this year; the reason for his dismissal is not related. Most businesses at times have to deal with disgruntled employees. Our policies are designed to uphold the highest ethical standards in all aspects of our business. AJ's maintains strict and consistent standards in all of its stores, and the standards are enforced rigorously. 

The USDA, by policy and design, conducts regular inspections of all grocery stores by random selection or query to ensure proper labeling. The USDA recently visited our locations, and we cooperated fully. If or when we learn of an issue which may relate to our high standards, we investigate and, if necessary, immediately resolve the issue. By policy, AJ's works with all regulatory agencies (including the USDA, Weights & Measures, County Health Departments and others) to ensure compliance with all food codes. We cooperate fully with each of these agencies when they make routine visits to our stores. 

The USDA does not routinely check for the accuracy of fat content on labels. But, that will change next year when a new program is put in place.

Butchers tell us the best way to tell if you are getting a leaner ground beef is by the color. The darker it is, the leaner it is.

Results

Safeway and Fry's faired the best in the test. See full test results.

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