Moscow's meat stores aren't for the faint-hearted

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Betty Crocker would blanch. The meat is displayed on trays, isn't wrapped, is fingered by customers, and still has bits of hide and fur clinging to it.

Adam Smith would be horrified.

The manager doesn't readily know his annual turnover or his annual profit.

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What's more, he sells his product for far less than it cost to produce.

Where's the beef?

Here, in a state-owned Moscow butcher shop. At two rubles a kilogram, or about $1.08 a pound.

Also here: some dried-out mutton, some high-priced chicken, and a gaggle of customers anxious to plop down their rubles for whatever's behind the counter.

On the wall, the benevolent visage of V. I. Lenin is cheek by jowl to a poster detailing how a beef carcass is butchered.

There are scores of these stores around Moscow. Like this one, they do a land-office business - even now, at 10:45 a.m., when most people are supposed to be working.

This store, medium-sized by Moscow standards, is more or less typical. There are numerous refrigerated display cases, but many of them are empty.

The cases for fish, for example, contain only powdered fish soup mix that needs no refrigeration.

The attendants, mostly women, wear white aprons (and, since it is winter, some also sport fur hats.) To buy meat, it's necessary to stand in line to choose it, then stand in another line to pay for it, and in yet another line to show the receipt and pick up the merchandise.

Even now, when the store is not particularly busy, customers can expect the transaction to take at least 20 minutes.

There are no ''sales.'' The government-controlled prices for each item are posted, and there are no markdowns. Soup bones are 48 cents a pound, mutton $1. 02, and chicken (in this case, imported) is $1.62. That makes duck, at $1.02 a pound, a bargain by comparison.

Shopping here is not for the faint-hearted. The meat is sawed or hacked from whole carcasses in a back room, and little thought is given to ''eye appeal.''

Consequently, the cuts tend to be stringy, bony, fatty - or inedible, by Western standards. (A reliable source says one store was recently selling cow udders.) Still, that doesn't dissuade buyers. In fact, the state must limit beef purchases to 2 kg. per person at a time.

Ground beef is not available. Period.

Ham and veal are exceptionally hard to come by. The same is true of rabbit.

Such scarcity inevitably gives rise to corruption, and bribes are common in order to secure choice cuts - or, at times, any cuts at all.

This store, which is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week, employs 50 people.

It sells 400,000 kg. (880,000 lbs.) of meat a year, and another 150,000 kg. of poultry. That makes for a yearly turnover of 5 million rubles (almost $6 million) and means a profit of 200,000 rubles.

It took a store official several minutes of painstaking calculation, using figures penciled in a ledger book, to arrive at these figures. The question of turnover and profit, he says, just doesn't come up that often.

In fact, ''profit'' is a misleading term.

The actual cost to produce a kilo of beef, the store official said, is three times its selling price.

In fact, the state spent ''in excess of 40 billion rubles'' ($47.6 million) to subsidize the cost of meat in 1983, according to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper.

What Pravda doesn't say - but travelers do - is that outside the major cities , there is sometimes no meat at all for sale.

The occasional shipment is snatched up as soon as it hits the stores.

One way around the problem is to catch a train to a large city like Moscow in hopes of finding some.

In fact, store officials here admit that were it not for out-of-town shoppers , the queues in Moscow's meat markets would not be nearly so long.

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