Apr 09 2012

Pique the Geek 20120408: More on Meat

Last time we discussed lean finely textured beef, commonly referred to as pink slime.  Tonight we shall finish this short series by discussing two other forms of recovered meat.

Mechanically separated meat is derived from a process that dates back to around forty or a few more years.  A newer process is called advanced meat recovery and has certain advantages over the older processes for some applications, but the older process is still used in others.

These products are in LOTS of prepared foods and interestingly are subject to a higher degree of regulation than lean finely textured beef, at least for beef products.  Please join for the discussion to follow.

Before we get into the mechanics of these modern processes, it is informative to look at how meat was treated when the family farm dominated the food sources.  In those days, labor was cheap and meat was quite valuable.  Now labor is expensive even when undocumented workers provide it, and meat is even more valuable than it was then.

On the farm, when a beef was slaughtered (almost always in late fall so that the weather would help preserve it) everyone pitched in to help.  Time was of the essence, so everyone was busy.  Normally a steer (a castrated male) was fattened up with corn or whatever grain that the farm produced for a few weeks before slaughter to marbleize the muscle with fat.  This was done both to increase the caloric value of the flesh and to render it more tender.  Steers were preferred because male bovines are not as productive as females from a calving and milk production standpoint.  Castration serves two purposes.  First, it encourages fat deposition, making the meat higher in calorific value.  Second, it greatly reduces aggressive behavior, and that is important when one is dealing with a near ton animal.  Both of these effects are due to reduction of testerone.

Once the animal was ready to slaughter, the rigging was brought near the pen and set up so that the animal could be raised by the heels to bleed out thoroughly.  Bleeding out is important to provide meat that does not decay too fast.  The beef was then usually shot, as the old saying goes, “right betwixt the eyes”.  This is important because the shot generally does not damage the brain stem, so the heart keeps beating.  Then everyone helped strapping of chaining the ankles to the rig and the beast was hoisted until its head was clear of the ground.

Immediately after hoisting a keen blade was used to sever the carotid arteries, the jugular veins, the trachea, and the esophagus.  Depending on the cultural background of the owners, the blood was either allowed to drain onto the ground or was caught in a large washpot to make blood pudding and sausage.  Now you see why is was important not to damage the brain stem, because the heart needs to keep beating to bleed the carcass.

Once the animal was bled, it was gutted and skinned (hogs were not skinned because hog skin edible).  Then, after being thoroughly drawn and washed, it was hung in a cool place for days to weeks to age the meat.  Aging involves a number of chemical and physical changes to the muscle, making it more tender and more flavorful.  Obviously, it has to be done at low temperatures or the meat will just rot.  The offal (edible internal organs) was harvested for immediate use, because it decays much faster than muscle.  Included in that category is the brain, the thymus, the liver, the kidneys, the spleen, the heart, and a couple more.  Those had to be cooked immediately and either eaten or canned.  Intestines were used to provide casings for sausage, and any scraps were made into that.

After hanging for as long as the owner decided was right, the beef was then cut up for use.  All of this was done by hand, and as we already established, labor was cheap.  Because of no refrigeration, the meat was mostly left in large pieces and just what was needed was cut from those.  Moldy bits were just cut off and discarded, usually to the pigs.  Some of the beef was salted or jerked, making it keep much longer, but most of it was eaten before warm weather.

The pieces that were used were carefully trimmed, by hand, and used almost completely.  The rendered fat (tallow) was used for cooking grease and for candles, the bones and gristle boiled for soup, and the unusable parts fed to the pigs.  My point is that hardly anything was wasted, but that was in large part because of cheap labor and expensive meat.

There is one other really significant difference betwixt farm meat and factory meat:  farm raised meat comes from just a few animals and they are treated very well.  In the old days there were no antibiotics in feed, the animals were not kept in filth filled feedlots, and since ground beef would not keep long, it was rare for the meat from multiple animals to be mixed except for sausage.

Let us fast forward to now.  Very little meat is raised at home, and labor is very expensive.  Not only beef, but all forms of meat are now raised and finished in huge quantities.  Sanitation is not what we would like, and meat from many animals is blended in the case of everything except whole cuts.

This raises all kinds of health issues.  Now thousands of pounds of ground meat are blended, and only one contaminated animal can taint the entire batch.  However, this is supposed to be about how packers get as much tissue off the bones as possible to maximize yield.

Mechanically separated beef is not allowed in the US because of concerns over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the so called mad cow disease.  Here is the definition of mechanically separated meat from FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) form USDA.


is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones with attached edible meat under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue. In 1982, a final rule published by FSIS on mechanically separated meat said it was safe and established a standard of identity for the food product. Some restrictions were made on how much can be used and the type of products in which it can be used. These restrictions were based on concerns for limited intake of certain components in MSM, like calcium. Due to FSIS regulations enacted in 2004 to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food. However, mechanically separated pork is permitted and must be labeled as “mechanically separated pork” in the ingredients statement.

The reason that beef is not used is that the process strips everything that is not bone and adds it to the mix.  Since nervous tissue harbors the prions that cause BSE, it is impossible to prevent them from getting into the batch if they are present.

Likewise, then FSIS definition of mechanically separated poultry is as follows.


is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones with attached edible tissue through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since 1969. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it would be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as “mechanically separated chicken or mechanically separated turkey” (depending on the kind of poultry used) in the ingredients statement. The final rule became effective November 4, 1996.

In fact, some bone DOES get into the final product in both cases.  However, the material is used regardless.  Mainly due to the calcium content, the product has to be labeled as “mechanically separated” because it does not have the same chemical composition as the pork or poultry whence it was derived.  More disturbing is the high amount of gristle and nervous tissue.  Now, this will not really hurt you, but it is not very appetizing.

I did a little looking, and my neighbor had a package of bologna.  The first two ingredients were mechanically separated chicken and mechanically separated pork.  I looked in my freezer at two cheap frozen dinners, and sure enough the major meat ingredient was mechanically separated chicken.  On a premium brand of frozen lasagna the only meats were beef and pork, so that was not mechanically separated.  However, that does NOT mean that only good cuts were used as we shall soon see.

Mechanically separated meat is everywhere, particularly in processed foods like hot dogs, salami, canned meat products, and the like.  If you dot want to eat mechanically separated meat, read the label.  However, you should be prepared to pay a premium over products that contain it.  But, there is a caveat.

Remember advanced meat separation techniques?  Here is the definition.


The definition of “meat” was amended in December 1994 to include as “meat” product derived from advanced meat/bone separation machinery which is comparable in appearance, texture and composition to meat trimmings and similar meat products derived by hand. Product produced by advanced meat recovery (AMR) machinery can be labeled using terms associated with hand-deboned product, e.g., “beef” or “pork” trimmings and ground “beef” or “pork.” The AMR machinery cannot grind, crush or pulverize bones to remove edible meat tissue and bones must emerge essentially intact. The meat produced in this manner can contain no more than 150 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams product. Product that exceeds the calcium content limit must be labeled “mechanically separated beef or pork.”

These processes use scraping or cutting to remove meat from bone, but as the definition shows, high pressures can not be used because it is required that the bones not be broken.  However, the problem with nervous tissue is still with us for beef.  Poultry is not normally treated by the process as the bones are too delicate.

So what do we do about the nervous tissue?  Actually, it is more than nervous tissue and the USDA defines these as specified risk materials (SRM).  To quote the FSIS definitions, they are:

Per 9 CFR 310.22(a), except when derived from beef imported from countries that demonstrate their status to meet or exceed the food safety status in the USA having prohibited SRMs for use in human food, the following materials from cattle 30 months of age and older are SRMs: the brain, skull, eyes, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cord, vertebral column (excluding the vertebrae of the tail, the transverse processes of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, and the wings of the sacrum) and dorsal root ganglia. SRMs also include the tonsils and distal ileum from cattle of all ages.

Thus, FSIS concentrates on older animals except for tonsils and distal ileum.  This means that advanced recovery process meat can not be extracted from any bone that is an SRM.  FSIS has a large amount of guidance for slaughterhouses to try to assure that SRM do not make it into the human food chain, but what if there is a beef that is 29 months and 29 days old.  It is not logical to assume that material becomes potentially hazardous overnight.  In reality, the regulations were drawn up conservatively, and 30 months has quite a safety margin to it.  Technically, calves brains are still available, but try finding them.

In any event, advanced meat separation produces a product that is much more like real meat than mechanically separated meat.  That is why there is no labeling requirement that it be called anything other than whatever kind of carcass whence it came.  There is a limit on the calcium level, 150 mg per 100 g of product.  This is assure that not too much bone gets mixed with it.  You have no way of knowing whether or not products that you buy contain this product unless the manufacturer chooses to tell you that they do NOT use it.

There is another safety feature, and that is the product can not be used for human food if the beef is over 30 months old.  It can be used for pet food.  Actually, except for ground beef, almost all beef comes from cattle under 30 months old.  Since the regulations do not allow the advanced processes for older animals, it is unlikely that it makes its way into the human food chain in significant quantities, but even with sound regulations and procedures, mistakes are sometimes made.

The US beef supply is one of the safest in the world.  According to numbers provided by The University of Edinburgh, as of November 2011, there were three cases of the human form of the disease in the US.  Two of these had resided in the UK during the period betwixt 1980 and 2004, when it was a time bomb there, and the third was originally from Saudi Arabia which is thought to have native cases.  There have been only three cattle ever found in the US with the disorder, compared to almost 200,000 in the UK.  By the way, if you look at the table on Wikipedia the human case total does not agree with the sum of the numbers.

Since I mentioned ground beef, I shall point out that the reason that older cattle are often used in it is that they are relatively cheap.  As they are retired from producing calves or milk, old cows go to the slaughter for grinding with the remainder going in pet food.  Similarly, the reason the steers are used for beef more often than heifers is that they can not give milk, and a single bull can service many cows, so male cattle are much more valuable for meat than for any other purpose.

The bottom line is that these enhanced meat recovery processes are here to stay.  When properly regulated and the regulations executed efficiently, they are not harmful but not necessarily appetizing.  The US meat supply is in general quite safe, with bacterial contamination being the greatest hazard to the public health.  Most of those threats are from ground meat, with whole cuts almost never being implicated.  So, cook your hamburgers thoroughly!

Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this lean piece.  Normally I make a political joke here, but tonight just want to remember Myron Leon Wallace, aka Mike.  The was a truly great journalist.  If he had lived just over one more month he would have turned 94 years old.  I shall stay around this evening as comments warrant, and shall return tomorrow evening at 9:00 Eastern for Review Time if something does not come up for me.  I always learn much more writing this series than I could possibly hope to teach, so keen those comments, questions, corrections and other feedback coming!  Tips and recs are also always welcome.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at Daily Kos,

Docudharma, and


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