"Street meat."

That's what Steve Jewell called the steaks and chops he was offered recently by a salesman going door-to-door in his Minneapolis neighborhood. The frozen, vacuum-packed meat came in an unlabeled box. The salesman said he was at the end of his shift, so he was offering the meat at cost.

Jewell passed on the deal. "I don't want a 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy when I'm buying meat," he said. "I don't care how cheap it is."

Still, he wonders where the meat came from.

He's not the only one.

While not as common as magazine, candy or firewood hawkers, door-to-door meat salesmen have been ringing doorbells -- and raising eyebrows -- for many years, said Dave Read, director of dairy and food inspection at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). As the weather heats up, Twin Cities residents can expect to see more meat vendors plying the streets.

That has Read and other food safety experts concerned that the promise of bargain-priced meats may to be too tempting to resist.

Established door-to-door sellers, such as Schwan's and the Iowa Steak Company, are licensed, inspected and clearly identifiable. But many others, who may be unlicensed, are selling unmarked meat from the back of a pickup truck. They're pitching rock-bottom prices, but lingering questions about the source, quality and safety of the meat they're offering remain.

These sellers often can be identified by the urgency in their pitch, said Read.

"They're at the end of their shift, their truck has broken down, or they have some unsold meat from their restaurant sales route. We've heard 'em all," said Read. And, despite what these sellers may claim, "meat supply companies don't sell unsold inventories door-to-door," Read added.

In the Twin Cities, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is currently investigating eight companies selling meat door-to-door. Complaints have ranged from poor meat quality to salesmen not having appropriate permits to the seller not standing behind its satisfaction guarantee, said Dana Badgerow, BBB president.

The MDA asks consumers to alert them to unlicensed food sellers, but it admits that offenders can be hard to track down, especially since the sellers often lack business cards and potential buyers don't think to write down a vehicle license plate number.

In the past few years, several meat sellers have been fined for selling tainted food or selling without a license. In 2004, Farmer's Pride Meat Co. in Blaine was required to surrender its food handler's license after more than 100 of its customers filed complaints. (The company had failed to notify its customers of a product recall and a number of Minnesota customers became ill, according to the MDA.)

Buy legit

Here's how to find out if a seller is legitimate, according to the MDA and BBB:

• Ask to see a wholesale food handler or retail food handler license for selling meat. It's also wise to ask for brochures and business cards so you can contact the seller. (If the seller has no documentation, get a license plate number and call the MDA at 651-201-6027 or 1-800-967-2474.)

• Buy only meat that comes from a refrigerated truck, not an ice chest or the trunk of a car.

• Look for labels such as "USDA Choice" on the box. Keep all packaging, including the box, so you can identify the cuts in case there's a quality problem with the meat.

• Pay with a credit card instead of cash or check.

• Never buy from a salesperson who's applying pressure.

• Ask the price per pound. If they quote a price by individual cut, the cost may be exorbitant. (A $4 steak sounds like a good deal, but if the steak weighs only 4 ounces, you'd be paying $16 per pound.)

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633