Mechanically separated meat: Chasing the critics
How did the 30-year-old, USDA-approved process become so infamous? Most recently, the increased attention has been brought about by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s push against using this meat in school and fast-food meals, as well as the quick organization of opponents to spread their message across social media. However, “pink slime” has become a generic, not-always-accurate term for what mainstream media and consumers believe to be the main ingredient in everything from chicken nuggets to hamburgers.
Thus, the meat and poultry industry are scrambling to educate the public about a process and product they have long viewed as safe. Mechanically separated chicken (MSC) is a primary ingredient for emulsified-type products such as hot dogs, bologna and Vienna sausages, explains Casey M. Owens-Hanning, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Food Science, University of Arkansas.
“Basically, the carcass frames go through a process in which the soft tissue is separated from the hard tissue by pressure,” she says. MSC would have to be listed specifically on the ingredient statement as “mechanically separated chicken” or “mechanically separated turkey,” if that’s the case, says Owens-Hanning.
Room for improvement?
The MSC process leads to few ergonomics issues, because the meat is separated by pump not manual cuts, notes Scott Russell, Ph.D., professor of poultry processing and products microbiology, Poultry Science Department, University of Georgia.
However, boxing up the separated meat that comes out of older machines can be a strain for employees. So some companies are getting smarter about improving the process by simply putting wheels on the receiving vats for easier movement, or setting them at higher levels, says Gary McMurray, chief of the Food Processing Technology Division at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
In addition, food traceability can be better addressed with more documentation and knowledge as to what farms the carcasses come from so they can be run together through the machines and receive one bar code, before another farm’s carcasses are run, he notes.
“It’s not that this process can’t be done — they just haven’t done it yet and need to start,” he says. “There’s no technology barrier, just new costs and effort.”
|Side Bar: Boneless lean beef vs. MSC: A big difference|
Although mechanically separated chicken (MSC) has been under fire from activists and the general public for years, recently, the consumer media has targeted boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) and often incorrectly lumped that product in the same category as MSC. Yet, Beef Products Inc., the company that developed and sells the BLBT product, believes that to be an unfair and inaccurate comparison.
“Some of these stories in the media now, the publications are actually taking old pictures of mechanically separated chicken and using that to represent our product — photos that are several years old and originally associated with mechanically separated chicken,” explains Rich Jochum, corporate administration, for BPI. “They’re making that the poster child for ‘pink slime,’ and misrepresenting it as our product, when it’s not at all our product.”
The process for producing BLBT is such: When a beef carcass is fabricated into primal and subprimal cuts, a significant amount of trimmings remain. These trimmings consist of fat, with small amounts of lean. The industry uses a low-temp, ultra-centrifuging process to separate the fat and lean to produce another 10 to 12 pounds of lean, finely textured beef, which can be used in ground beef and sausage, says H. Russell Cross, Ph.D., professor and head of the Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University.
“As administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service [FSIS] in the early 1990s, I and my staff evaluated numerous research projects before approving lean, finely textured beef as a safe source of high-quality protein,” says Cross.
Beef Products Inc. (BPI) developed the process to produce this product, and to enhance food safety, it adds a very small amount of ammonium hydroxide to the product, says Rosemary Mucklow, director emeritus, National Meat Association, based in Oakland, Calif. Cross explains that the addition of ammonia slightly raises the pH and makes it inhospitable to key pathogens.