Meat truck deals: How to tell a bargain from a bad idea

The idea of strangers peddling a side of beef, chicken cuts or maybe even bacon slices door to door isn’t actually new. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it has taken reports of meat vendors for “many years” now. But with the popularity of consumer items being sold from a moving vehicle these days rising — food truck festivals, anyone? — chances are these concerned citizen calls will drop. Buying meat from somewhere other than a refrigerated case at the grocery store doesn’t strike all Americans as “off.”

For starters, it’s a great budget relief at a time when the prices in grocery-store aisles can bring on a migraine. According to Jenny Martin of Southern Savers, a couponing blog site, lean ground beef costs $3.99 a pound or more at her local store. Or, she can buy it from Zaycon Foods, which sells directly from the processor to consumers, for $2.97 per pound if she goes for the 40-pound box. Other consumers report between saving as much as $4 per pound over a bricks-and-mortar location, depending on the choice of meat.

It’s hard to be chicken about buying their breasts for $1.84 a pound.

Zaycon, based out of Spokane, Wash., uses the Internet to collect such orders. Families then arrange to pick up their meat from a truck. Church parking lots are a common meeting location. Zaycon can cut the price of its meat because it isn’t paying for a mortgage, lights, shopping bags, or even shrink-wrap packaging. It’s up to you to seal and freeze the meat.

It’s also in your court to figure out whether buying in those large quantities is appropriate for your family. Throwing out freezer-burned steaks is never a wise financial move. Also, check to see whether the truck price tag competes with warehouse membership prices. Some shoppers say Costco prices in particular are in the same ballpark, and its meat is already packaged. And finally, consider whether you are the pioneer type who is prepared to make a special trip for your order, then season and preserve your meat as opposed to merely scouring the paper for coupons each week.

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Overcoming the ick factor

It’s also your responsibility to make safe choices when it comes to meat sold unconventionally.

“People have told me, ‘I feel dirty. I just bought a box of chicken out of a truck parked in a bowling alley. But it’s the best chicken I’ve ever had,’” Mike Conrad at Zaycon told the Tampa Bay Times. Consumers dealing with other companies haven’t had that same positive outcome. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota investigated eight companies in the first quarter of 2012 when consumers registered complaints ranging from poor meat quality to not standing behind guarantees in these mobile situations. Meat-truck scams exist across the nation.

Those folks were left just feeling pounded. To avoid swallowing that same fate, take this advice:

  • Ask to see a company’s wholesale food handler or retail food handler license. Legitimate companies like the Iowa Steak Company are licensed, inspected and held accountable. If you aren’t certain of a company’s credentials, ask the vendor to come back at a later time and check with your state’s agriculture department.
  • Reputable sellers have business cards, brochures and return policies. Get the company’s phone number and address information in writing before you make your purchase, so you can it down if things don’t pan out.
  • Does the seller sound desperate? Close your door or walk away. The sales pitch is varied but predictable: It’s the end of the driver’s shift and the truck broke down/he has unsold meat from his restaurant route. According to Dave Reed, director of dairy and food inspection at MDA, the urgency of the pitch often spotlights its illegitimacy.
  • Only buy meat that comes from a refrigerated truck, not an ice chest.
  • Ask the price per pound. A quote by individual cut may sound good ($1 per pork chop) but if that’s a skinny slice, you could be paying $10 a pound. In states like Vermont, meat retailers are required to quote price per pound.
  • Where’s the USDA sticker? Ask for proof this meat was inspected before it left the processor.
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Once you’ve sorted the wheat from the chaff, it’s a good bet your truck purchase will beef up your food budget quite nicely.

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