Is it meat or isn’t it? Only the Department of Agriculture knows for sure, and recently it reported that some ground beef contains bone, bone marrow and even spinal cord and thus should not be called “meat.”
While spinal cord may sound like a scary addition to a cheeseburger, the issue has more to do with truth-in-labeling, economics and industry competition than it does with food safety.
The unappetizing findings come from a USDA study of seven meat packing plants that use a new technology called “advanced meat recovery,” or AMR. Machinery used in the technology recovers meat from bones through hydraulic pressure that separates the meat into a pasty blob, and the bones into a compact cylinder.
Nothing but meat is supposed to end up in that blob, but in some cases the USDA found that its composition was “significantly different” from hand-deboned products. Among other things, the AMR meat had lower protein values and higher fat, cholesterol, calcium and iron - indications that bone and marrow were getting pressed into the mix.
Two out of 300 samples showed evidence of spinal cord. That raised a red flag for consumer groups, who cautioned that the technology could provide an avenue of entry for “mad cow” disease, a mysterious infection in cows’ brains that has been linked in Britain to 10 cases of a rare human disease.
No cases of the disease have been reported in the United States, and the USDA said that at this point its findings do not pose any public health threat.
The idea of incorporating crushed bone into meat products is nothing new. For years, companies have had at their disposal a less advanced technology that produces what’s called “mechanically separated meat.” This technology pulverizes the bones with the meat, and then separates them through a sieve.
A certain number of bone particles are left - and permitted - in the resulting product. Since this produces a product that is different from meat, however, companies have had to label it as “mechanically separated.” Fearing a poor reception with consumers, few took the plunge.
(Ironically, since November, the term “mechanically separated poultry” has been required on the labels of chicken and turkey hot dogs, nuggets and luncheon meats that use it and has had “no effect on sales … not even a little bump in the road,” says Bill Roenigk, vice president of the National Broiler Council.)
In 1995, beef and pork processors were given the go-ahead by the USDA to call the product yielded by AMR technology “meat,” and the supply took off. Approximately 400 million pounds of AMR meat were produced last year, a small percentage of the nearly 7.25 billion pounds of ground beef produced in the United States in 1996, according to the American Meat Institute.
You can’t buy anything that’s 100 percent AMR meat; beef or pork produced through the technology is mixed with regular ground meat, at somewhere below 10 percent by weight. The mixture is then sold to supermarkets or food service outlets, or made into luncheon meats, hot dogs and sausage.
Meat processors have touted AMR as a way to eliminate worker injuries caused by hand deboning, but there are also economic interests at stake.
A brochure from one of the manufacturers of the new machinery, made in the Netherlands, states that “with ever-increasing labor costs … it is becoming most important to achieve maximum carcass utilization with minimum production costs.”
Steve Seideman, director of product research and development for Doskocil Foods in Hutchinson, Kan., a company that sells ingredients to the food service industry, said that the firm has experimented with AMR-derived meat in its pepperoni and that “there’s money to be saved when we can use it.”
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