Corn-tamination Series: Avoiding Corn in Meat

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, so I was unable to do it.

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 from corn, 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.

Question List

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.

Ask First

  1. 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.

Kill/Slaughter

  1. What do you use to clean your knives, surfaces, and other equipment, including the interior of the truck for transport?
  2. Do you use any kind of antimicrobial wash after skinning?
  3. Do you use a roller brand after skinning?
  4. Are gloves used?

Butcher/cutting

  1. What detergent, soaps, and/or lubricants are used on surfaces, machinery, and cutting implements?
  2. Are gloves used?
  3. Do you dry age or wet age the meat?

If wet aged

  1. Just to double-check, you wet age by putting in the final packaging that you sell the meat in, right?

 

If dry aged

  1. What do you clean your aging locker with?
  2. Do you every apply any antimicrobial solution, brine, or anything else to the meat before or during aging?

Packaging

  1. Are gloves used?
  2. What brand packaging do you use?
  3. Would you be willing to use packaging I provide?
  4. 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:
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