Buying premium deli meat? Caveat emptor!

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – If you’ve ever sat through a session during industry conventions that covers consumer trends or new product trends regarding meat and poultry products, speakers will eventually touch on the important fact that manufacturers of fresh and processed products want consumers to have a positive, enjoyable experience each and every time they eat one of their products.

For some premium luncheon meat products sliced to order at the deli, consumers need to pay closer attention to their shelf-life and use-by dates to ensure this happens.

Our family generally does grocery shopping no more than once a week—and sometimes we’ll stretch it out to two weeks. Working from an office at home, I eat lunch at home almost every day. As a result, I used to stop by the deli section during grocery shopping trips and order 1 lb. of upscale sliced ham or some other type of luncheon meat every now and then thinking this would surely last until our next trip to the deli counter one week later.

About one year ago, I started noticing the very good and expensive brand of luncheon meat I was buying started tasting funny after three or four days at home…it tasted almost rancid. Eating a sandwich made from this product was far from an enjoyable experience after the meat was in my refrigerator for four or more days. It never dawned on me to look at the use-by date on the label because I just bought the product; I began thinking that the meat compartment on our refrigerator, which isn’t that old, wasn’t working right.

One day I slapped together a ham and cheese sandwich and after my first bite I was really startled and disappointed in how it tasted…so the rest of it went into the garbage disposal and down the drain. In frustration, I dug out what was left of that expensive package of sliced, premium deli ham and thought maybe it’s the packaging, because the deli-counter slicer placed the ham into a somewhat flimsy, bulk, resealable bag — sometimes this package would tear or wouldn’t close properly. I finally decided to look at the label on the package and was shocked: the use-by date was just two days after I bought the product—and that was five days ago!

Earlier this year, we started shopping more often at a small, independent, upscale supermarket closer to home; its meat and deli departments are top-notch. They pretty much offer the same brands the other store offered, although not as much of a variety. I was amazed to find that when I made my first upscale deli luncheon-meat purchase there, the use-by date was the same date as the day it was purchased. After looking into to this further, I discovered that at least one premium deli brand does have a very short shelf-life because it does not include any preservatives in its products.

This wasn’t the case when I was in high school during the 1960s. My mom and dad would shop each Wednesday night at the Hi-Low, a now defunct Chicago supermarket chain, and order several lbs. of luncheon meat that would be sliced from logs. She’d order pickle and pimento loaf, pepper loaf and other products that were unusual to me at that time that were sliced and then wrapped in a reddish/brown paper held together by several strips of tape. While the butcher was wrapping the meat, it wouldn’t be unusual for him to have a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. My mom made sandwiches for my dad to take to work as well as for my sister and me to take to high school for lunch. Our sandwiches would sit unrefrigerated in our stuffy, gray metal school lockers until lunchtime. Regardless, I remember my sandwiches always tasting good back in those days.

And now back to the present. It finally dawned on me that if I bought this premium brand of deli meat in this amount expecting it to last a week or more, how many other consumers are doing the same thing? It would behoove manufacturers of premium deli luncheon meats featuring very short shelf-life to ask their customers, the supermarket delis, to let consumers who are ordering a pound or more of their product know that the shelf-life is shorter than pre-packaged meats with preservatives. It may scare some customers away from that brand, but it will prevent even more customers from being disappointed with the product’s taste once it exceeds the short use-by date and then never buying that brand of product again.

I have since adjusted my deli meat purchasing habits. I now buy a lesser amount of product at one time—one-quarter to one-half lb. maximum vs. the previous 1 lb.—realizing it would have to be consumed within the next few days. For the bulk of my luncheon meat purchases, I have returned to buying pre-packaged, pre-sliced luncheon meats because I prefer the longer shelf-life. And I now pay closer attention to the purchase-by or use-by dates on the packaging.

Although it’s customary in the EU and for many US consumers, particularly young professionals living in large cities, to shop daily for food purchases, particularly perishables, that’s too impractical for us to do as the stores we shop at are 15-20 miles away…..plus neither one of us really enjoy shopping.

I learned the hard way that buying upscale deli meat is just like buying any other product……Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware!

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