There’s Corn In Meat?
Oh, of course there is. The degree to which those with corn allergies have to worry about it will vary with the individual. Some are more reactive to corny washes than to corn feed, and some have to only worry about animals fed whole kernels of corn but not corn-derived vitamins or other corn products. It just depends on the person.
The two biggest ways corn gets into meat is the animal’s feed, and the disinfecting washes used on meat in processing. Not everyone is sensitive to both things or either of them. I started out having to worry about neither, and then progressed over a period of many years to having to worry about both, and to the point that not even the tiniest traces of corn based sanitizer used on the meat at any point were okay for me.
Finding Out Where the Corn Is Can Be Tricky
When I got more sensitive, I found that I even reacted to the pre-cut meat from local pastured meat ranches who swore to me that not only did their animals never eat any corn at all, but they didn’t rinse the meat off with any disinfectants.
I spent weeks on the phone trying to figure out what the problem was. The big clue came when I noticed that my reaction to a particular ranch’s beef was much more severe than to their pork. That ranch happened to have their own slaughter and butcher facilities (most ranchers send their animals to third parties for slaughter and butcher) so I called the facility manager. She kept insisting over and over that they didn’t spray the meat with anything, until finally, after the third conversation, she said, “Oh! you know, after we slaughter and skin, we do the acid wash. But that’s just white vinegar, that’s from rice right?” Wrong, vinegar is from corn and it’s bad news for me. Compared to lactic acid, which I still am sensitive to, it’s basically pure corn.
Turns out the reason the pork was better than the beef is that after the acid wash, a layer of outer fat is trimmed from the pork, while with the beef the butchering is done directly after. So more of the corny vinegar wash was trimmed away with the pork. It still really got in there, though. Even the “cleanest” part of the meat still made my tongue burn and swell. Just not *as badly*. So for me, a liquid applied to the outside of meat gets throughout the cut no matter how much is trimmed away and renders the whole animal intolerable for my allergies.
The Laundry List: How Corn Gets Into Meat
Here’s my understanding of how corn gets into meat in the USA:
- Corn in the animal’s feed. Not everyone has to worry about this. I can’t eat corn fed meat but seem to be able to eat corn fed eggs and dairy. Many others cannot even do dairy or eggs from corn-fed animals. Note that some “grass-fed” beef is still “grain finished”: fed grain the few weeks before slaughter to fatten them up. So if you need to care about feed, also ask if it is grass finished. Some smaller farmers purchase their animals as weanlings from other farmers and raise them after that point. Also note that even though some feed labels do not contain actual corn kernels, they will still contain corn-derived vitamins such as tocopherol and ascorbic acid, and contain fermentation products that were fermented on corn sugar. Also some animals such as pigs will be supplemented with kitchen scraps that may be corny. Not everyone has to worry about this, but I seem to have to worry about all of the above, personally.
- Corn in dietary supplements given outside of feed. Recently one of my corn-free friends ended up with 3/4 of a cow her allergic kids were reacting to, and the only variable that was different from their last (safe) beef was a “mineral lick” that contained a number of corn derivatives.
- Corn fodder used in bedding that the animals may end up eating.
- Slaughter: Hot wax is often used to help in plucking poultry. The wax may not be corny but I’m not minded to risk it personally.
- Slaughter: Antimicrobial solutions applied after skinning. With livestock (vs wild game), slaughtering and butchering are often done by two different people. A guy will come out to the farm and slaughter and skin the animals, and for larger animals they will cut them into very large chunks. Then the chunks will be sent to the butcher to be further cut down and packaged. The USDA requires some sort of antimicrobial solution be applied after skinning, and this solution is usually paracetic acid, acetic acid (vinegar), lactic acid, or citric acid. All of these are a product of fermentation on a corn dextrose medium, and I react to all of them. Steam/hot water disinfecting is supposedly allowed but I rarely hear of it being done. In some states, USDA rules *must* be obeyed even on custom processed animals. In other states, as long as you buy the whole animal you can dictate what is done to it, no problem. When calling around, what you are looking for is “custom meat processors.”
- Slaughter: USDA “roller brand” is applied to USDA certified meat classifying the grade. Not sure what this stamp is allowed to be made from but reports of people who had meat custom processed and reacted to it say that the stamp on their meat was made from grape juice, which of course has the potential to be corny. Ask about the USDA stamp/”roller brand” and see if it can be skipped.
- Slaughter: Detergent, soaps, and lubricants used on surfaces, cutting implements, and hands. Dawn, Dial, Bon Ami, and most other cleaners and soaps commonly used for washing hands and surfaces are corny. The powder on powdered gloves is corny. Some types of cutting tools are oiled with an oil that may not be safe for you. If the processor uses gloves, identify a safe-for-you glove and provide those. Identify a safe-for-you detergent and cleaner and ask the processor to use those. If you can’t work that out, either consider finding another processor, or ask them to rinse their tools really, really, really well. Maybe see if they can use the tools on another animal first so that the corny detergent gets worked off of the tools. Of course if they are hosing their other animals off with a corny solution, that won’t help you as they’ll just be contaminating the tools more.
- Butchering: Aging. Unlike lamb, beef has to be aged for 10-14 days after slaughter in order to be edible, otherwise the meat is very tough. Wet aging *should* involve just putting the beef into vacuum sealed packaging for sale and keeping it refrigerated for a period of weeks. If something is added in with the meat to “help” it age or inhibit “bad” bacteria, that would be a problem. Or if the beef were wet-aged in a different package from what it was sold in (unlikely), you’d have to ask About both packages. Dry aging involves hanging the carcass in a refrigerated locker at very specific temperature and humidity and.. letting it hang. This should be safe for corn, unless some kind of brine or antimicrobial spray is used during this process.Article on aging beef. Article on dry aging beef.
Note that the aging process makes breed high histamine so if you react to histamines in food, exercise caution with beef.
- Butchering: Detergent, soaps, and lubricants used on surfaces, cutting implements, and hands. Same story as above: Ask them to use safe for you soap, detergents, and gloves. Since the butcher will be doing a LOT more to the animal than the person who does the slaughter, it is particularly important that you work with someone who is truly custom and truly wants to do what YOU need. I found a place that is very small and actually only open “on demand,” that are very accommodating and are willing to do whatever I need.
- Butchering: Meat grinders are washed and sanitized with corny solutions. Meat grinders being what they are, they are usually going to be washed and sanitized with something heavy duty and of course corny. Additionally the act of grinding the meat exposes more surface to potential allergen contamination. You can ask the to just rinse the grinder really well with water after washing, but I ask them to skip all ground meat and instead do stew chunks. I can then grind those chunks into ground meat using my food processor, if I choose. How to grind meat in your food processor.
- Butcher and slaughtering: Cross contamination if corny washes/cleaners/sprays are used. I prefer to only go with a facility that doesn’t ever use the corny washes if possible. If that weren’t possible, I’f try to get them to process my animal first, after washing all equipment in the safe soap/sanitizer I supply, so that any corny washes used for the other animals don’t get on my animal, but I’ve heard that cross contamination is frequent when the butcher typically used the corny washes and skips them on demand. I have heard stories from a number of people that their first meat order was a horrible failure because even though the processor didn’t use corny chemicals on their animal, there was corn just left over on their instruments and surfaces. In all cases, switching to a processor that didn’t use the corny washes *ever* was the solution.
- Packaging: Butcher paper may have corn fiber in it. Waxed papers may use a corn-based wax. Plastic liners may also contain corn polymers. Stretch plastic wrap is usually dusted with corn starch. All of the other items may also be dusted with corn starch to keep them from sticking. You’ll need to get the item numbers and manufacturers/suppliers name from your butcher and contact them about what’s in/on the packaging. My butchers have agreed to just put everything into Ziplock brand bags, which I know are safe for me.
The above refers to US practices as I live in the US, but many of the issues mentioned may be issues in other countries as well. The disinfecting wash mentioned seems to have been banned in the UK up until 2012, but is now approved by the Food Standards Agency. I think it is not yet common practice, and the European suppliers of lactic acid often use wheat rather than corn glucose to produce their lactic acid, however this may increasingly pose a problem for the more sensitive UK corn allergy sufferers.
So How To Get Corn-Free Meat?
Well, it depends on how corn-free you need it. Many people will not need to get their meat custom processed right away. I didn’t need to for many years.
If you (or your loved one for whom you cook) are reacting to your grocery store meat, there may be some steps you can take before you have to dive in to the expense and risk of getting meat custom processed.
First try to eliminate some variables. Grocery store meat is going to be rinsed in citric or lactic acid several times and possibly have dyes applied to keep it looking fresh, and then packaged with a citric acid soaker pad and then wrapped with plastic wrap that is dusted in corn starch. Try a butcher counter, and from a real, artisan butcher who can tell you what happened to the meat from the time it came to him. That won’t cut out the initial corny wash after slaughter, but maybe you can get away with that part of it if it isn’t then hosed down in more corny washes and then wrapped up in more corn.
If you find a good butcher and aren’t able to tolerate “light wash” meats, then figure out if corn fed is a problem for you, or corny washes, or both. One way to tell, if you don’t have an allergy to chicken, would be to get an Empire Kosher chicken. Many Trader Joe’s locations sell them as do many kosher stores. Affordable Kosher here in Seattle sells them, and you can order from Affordable Kosher via Amazon Fresh. The empire chickens are fed corn, but are not washed in citric acid or any other corn-based solution. I don’t know what the plastic packaging is made out of, so what I’d do to really isolate variables is get a whole chicken, then rinse and skin it before cooking. Make sure to cook in a fashion that won’t introduce corn. I had a lot of false reactions for a while because the oven in my rental house had some kind of corny buildup in it and was cooking corn into everything.
If the Empire Kosher chicken isn’t working for you, and you’re totally certain you don’t have an allergy to chicken, then it’s probably safe to bet that corn-fed meat is your problem. I react to Empire Kosher chicken. There may be some other experimenting you can do around that, just depending on the resources available to you.
If you find yourself in a situation where none of the store-bought meats are working for you, you’ll need to locate some farmers that raise corn-free livestock and then negotiate custom slaughter and butchering. To locate the farmers, use Eat Wild and Local Harvest. Locating safe butchers and slaughterers is another story. I actually just lucked into my butchers- the folks I bought poultry from used them for their lambs and I was able to negotiate something safe.
My Story and Experiences
As I mentioned earlier, after several years of avoiding corn, I eventually became unable to tolerate even the tiniest traces of corn derivatives used anywhere near my meat. When you get to that point, the only thing left to do is to choose the animal you want from a rancher that has never fed it anything that could be a problem, and control every step of processing from slaughter to butcher and packaging.
Unfortunately navigating the custom processing is not easy, and also carries a hefty financial risk. You generally need to order a large quantity of meat such as 1/4 cow (what that looks like) or 1/2 of a pig (what that looks like). In addition to paying for the meat itself (from hundreds to even thousands of dollars), you will also be investing in a freezer in which to store it. That’s a pretty significant expense if you get it wrong and react.
I am very lucky to live in an area where there are a number of farms who raise non-corn-fed chickens and pigs. Outside of this area it seems that corn-free chicken and pig feed are unheard of. Here we have two feeds that don’t contain corn available. Both are described on this feed ingredients document from the Seattle Farm Co-op.
I have recently tried some chicken fed one of these “corn free” feeds, Scratch & Peck, and had a reaction. I am pretty sure it was the feed- there are a lot of corny vitamins and additives in it even though there aren’t any literal kernels of corn, so that could be the issue, or it could be a cross contamination thing. I am pretty sure it wasn’t a processing problem. The chicken I eat is fed a corn-free variety from InSeason Farms, but I don’t know which one. Have asked my farmers for details.
I also failed some pork that wasn’t fed actual corn kernels, but was given kitchen scraps as a dietary supplement that likely contained corn, and was fed expired dairy products. Not sure which products exactly, but many brands of sour cream contain corn starch and other dairy products have corny vitamins in them. I also cannot seem to tolerate meat from animals that were fed corn at the beginning of their lives but fed corn free later. Apparently any amount of corn in their diet is a no-go. So for me, my meat can’t even eat “corn lite,” it has to truly be corn free.
Not everyone will be this sensitive- just covering the bases of what is possible here.
Getting a large animal custom processed was beyond me last summer, but since many local farms slaughter and process the chickens themselves, I was able to get several safe chickens. Those ran out around January, though, and then I was down to just eggs for protein. (I haven’t found any beans that I don’t react to yet. Not sure if that is a bean problem or a corn problem.)
As of the last update of this post, I have successfully had chickens, lamb, and beef custom processed. The chickens were processed by the farmers who raised them, while the lamb and the cow were slaughtered by a contractor and then transported to a butcher for portioning out. The beef was dry aged for 14 days before butchering. The lamb was delicious, but also served as a lower-risk test to see if I’d covered all the bases with my instructions than an entire side of beef. The lamb cost me about $575 after the slaughter, transport, cut and wrap fees. I only got a quarter cow for my first beef order and all told it cost me about $560 for 175 lbs of beef. It worked out to about $11.50/lb for the lamb, where you’re usually paying $16-$20/lb in the store, and $3.20/lb for the beef which is a steal for grass fed and finished.
Here is the list of questions I advise people to ask of potential meat processors. First I have just the questions for copy/pasting. Below that, I’ve gone into each question and my commentary.
- Who kills the animal and skins it? Then who cuts, and who packages?
Depending on the answer, you may need to ask up to 3 people these questions.
- What do you use to clean your knives, surfaces, and other equipment, including the interior of the truck for transport?
- Do you use any kind of antimicrobial wash after skinning?
- Do you use a roller brand after skinning?
- Are gloves used?
- What detergent, soaps, and/or lubricants are used on surfaces, machinery, and cutting implements?
- Are gloves used?
- Do you dry age or wet age the meat?
If wet aged
- Just to double-check, you wet age by putting in the final packaging that you sell the meat in, right?
If dry aged
- What do you clean your aging locker with?
- Do you every apply any antimicrobial solution, brine, or anything else to the meat before or during aging?
- Are gloves used?
- What brand packaging do you use?
- Would you be willing to use packaging I provide?
- Does the meat come in contact with any other packaging like wax paper?
What should these answers be?
In many cases it will depend on you/your sensitivity. Here are the answers I’m looking for:
What do you use to clean your knives, surfaces, and other equipment, including the interior of the truck for transport?
Steam/hot water, or my specific brand of safe soap which I provide. If you tolerate a brand of soap that is purchased from a store, you could ask them to buy that.
Do you use any kind of antimicrobial wash after skinning?
Steam/hot water, or none.
Do you use a roller brand after skinning?
I don’t know what roller brand would be okay. They could do it and then cut off that part of the cow, maybe, if they were careful about it. I avoid.
Are gloves used?
No, or powder free nitrile. Kirkland brand is fine with me, you may have different needs.
What do you use to wash your hands?
I have to provide my safe soap. It’s possible they already use a brand that is safe for you.
What detergent, soaps, and/or lubricants are used on surfaces, machinery, and cutting implements?
They need to use safe cleaner that I provide. In my case Charlie’s surface cleaner. Something else may be okay for you.
Are gloves used?
Kirkland powder free nitrile is fine for me, or none.
What do you wash your hands with?
In my case, I need to ask this even if they use gloves, since with gloves going on and off and cuts getting moved around and put into packages, whatever they wash their hands with could still come into contact with my food. I have them use safe hand soap which I provide. For a while I was only providing them with the Charlie’s cleaner and then I found out they were using that for hand soap, the poor things. That stuff is really harsh and drying!
Do you dry age or wet age the meat?
Either answer is fine, depending.
If wet age
Just to double-check, you wet age by putting in the final packaging that you sell the meat in, right?
The answer will be yes, but if it somehow is the case that they age in one packaging and then repackage, you’ll need to check to see if BOTH packaging is safe for you.
If dry aged
What do you clean your aging locker with?
My guys do use bleach periodically and then rinse well, but they guaranteed me that there was no chance of my beef coming into contact with the walls of the locker. They did say that it could come into contact with another hanging side of beef, so DO be sure that the facility you uses NEVER uses a lactic acid or vinegar or other corny wash on the outside of the meat, because it could touch your wash-free meat in the locker.
Do you ever apply any antimicrobial solution, brine, or anything else to the meat before or during aging?
I would avoid ALL brines, even if they seem corn free. The answer here should just be NO.
Are gloves used?
What brand packaging do you use?
The right answer here will depend on you. You can get an empty package from them and trial it by putting known safe food in it, preferably something wet so any possible allergens in the packaging will transfer to the food, refrigerate for several hours or overnight, and then try the food and see if it’s allergenic. I also just… licked the bag.. once, and knew right away. Not everyrone reacts on instant contact with their mouth though so that’s not a tactic that would work with everyone. I usually do the lick test first to eliminate BAD problems, and then do a food test next.
Would you be willing to use packaging I provide?
I have to provide my safe Ziplocks (slider bags only, not the big tab/easy open bags). I have successfully had them wrap in aluminum foil and then paper which is easier to handle/organize in my freezer, but I don’t think I want that much aluminum in contact with my food. My ideal would be foodsaver brand vacuum bags, but my butchers don’t have a vacuum sealer.
Does the meat come in contact with any other packaging like wax paper?
For me the answer has to be no.
Below are the instruction sheets I used for my farmers and meat processors.
Instruction Sheet I have successfully used for processing my chickens
Thanks in advance for working with me on my special needs! I hope this will be very easy for you to do. This small effort will make a huge difference to my health and well being.
- Please wash hands, cutting surfaces, and cutting tools with the provided corn-free soap and rinse well with water. (I dilute the soap 1:5 soap:water for these kinds of purposes but you may have a preferred concentration.)
- Please do not use gloves, only clean hands. If you would like to use gloves let me know and I can have safe-for-me gloves delivered to you.
- Please do not use wax or any other product to aid in defeathering the chickens. Please contact me if this is an issue.
- Please rinse the chickens only in water.
- Please package the chickens in the provided Ziploc brand bags. I realize that you won’t be able to squeeze 100% of the air out of the bags. That’s okay.
Note: I would like the feet, organs, and gizzards if you can spare them. Please package these in the provided ziploc brand bags as well.
Instruction sheet I plan to gave to the man who did the slaughter/skinning of my animal
Thanks so much for working with me to process my lamb safely for me! A few quick reminders about safety for my allergy. I think most of this is how you do stuff already so it should be no big deal.. If any of this concerns you please feel free to give me a call- I’ll be watching my phone on slaughter day.
Please wash hands in the provided corn-free soap.
Please wash all cutting tools and surfaces with the provided corn-free cleaner and rinse thoroughly with water.
If gloves are used, please use the powder-free nitrile gloves and use the provided soap to wash your hands with the gloves on to get any residue off the gloves.
Please do not rinse the carcass in anything other than water.
- Please do not use any stamps on the outside of the carcass.
Thanks in advance,
Instruction sheet I gave to the butcher who portioned out the animal
Thanks so much for working with me to process my lamb safely for me! A few quick reminders about safety for my allergy.
Please wash hands in the provided corn-free soap.
Please wash all cutting tools and surfaces with the provided corn-free cleaner and rinse thoroughly with water.
If gloves are used, please use powder-free nitrile gloves and use the corn-free soap to wash your hands with the gloves on to get any residue off the gloves.
If any oils are used to maintain cutting tools, please talk with me before using them.
No ground meat please. Meat grinders expose too many surfaces to potential allergen cross-contamination. Please just bag up any trim you would normally grind.
Please save ALL FAT from the cow and put it in my provided ziploc bags. Even the meaty “lower-grade” fat.
Please save ALL BONES including large bones put it in my provided bags if they will fit. I have included extra 2-gallon bags for this purpose. (I make these into homemade gelatin.)
Please do not rinse the carcass or meat cuts in anything other than water.
Packaging: Please package the meat in the provided ziploc brand bags. I realize that you won’t be able to squeeze all the air out of the ziplocs. This is okay.
Thanks in advance,
A Note On Waste
I try to use as much of the animal as possible. Part of this is because safe food is so hard to come by that I don’t want to waste it. The other part is out of respect. People put hard work into lovingly raising these animals for me, and those animals died so that I can keep living. I can’t imagine just throwing out any usable portion given the work and cost of everyone involved.
So when I get my chickens? I ask for the organs and the feet. When I get a larger animal, I ask for the organs, and also ask for the organs of any other animals that the other buyers don’t want. I also frequently ask for any discarded large bones from the animal to turn into broth/gelatin. You need to ask for bones and organs BEFORE slaughter otherwise they won’t be handled in a necessarily corn-safe way, they often get stuck in a random bucket or bag that was cleaned with who knows what.
I’ve tried to get the head and tripe before but this isn’t something that the butchers or slaughterers I work with are used to processing, so that hasn’t worked out. Once upon a time I asked for the heads of my lambs and the butcher just gave me the whole heads with fur still on, and honestly I still haven’t done anything with those heads. I meant well, but I just don’t have the energy to figure out how to skin/de-fur a lamb head when I’m allergic to wool.