By now I’m sure many have viewed a recent article presented via Huffington Post pertaining to mechanically separated meat (MSM), namely mechanically separated chicken. I appreciate it when questions are asked about the meat we eat, yet frustration is almost always certain because of off-the-wall article comments. Let’s get a few things straight about MSM before I delve into the process and how various forms of a “meat paste” like this are not at all unusual nor bad. (Personally, I think this subject has received attention because the photos are simply out of context, distort people’s perceptions, and attempt to elevate them to Soylent Green status.)
It was clarified (albeit after original publication) that MSM chicken is not in chicken McNuggets (since 2003). Where does it usually show up? Usually in hot dogs (no more than 20%), and its inclusion in those franks is written clear as day right on the label. Usually it shows up in value-brand products.
Back to meat pastes. There are a variety of paste-like meat emulsion (or emulsion-like) products made possible by the stepwise organization of protein, fat and water, some of which are more fanciful than others. Pâté, braunschweiger, and even your Mom’s pimento loaf sandwich meat originated from meat processed into some sort of paste-like form. And we cannot forget the precious scrapple. Or even “high-end” hot dogs (yes, I think there is such a thing). Then there is MSM chicken, which is “recovered” (I admit, that is an unappealing term) from meaty bones via pressure and a seive, and there are “finely textured lean beef trimmings” (the subject of a New York Times article last December), which is “recovered” from fatty beef trimmings via pH adjustments and a centrifuge. How are these things related? By themselves, in raw form, they just don’t look all that appealing. That’s all.
Why do it? I’ll be bold by saying: it’s about sustainability. If you know me, you know how I am easily frustrated with that term (well, more often than not, it’s how the term is used, not the premise of it). [Amended 08 Oct 2010 @ 3:18 p.m. – My colleague tweeted this to me yesterday in relation to this subject, and I entirely agree: There is a strong moral case and ecological case to eat as much of the animals we raise as possible.] The likelihood of every individual meat eater opting to buy a whole chicken carcass as opposed to boneless breasts or chicken tenders is nil — that means something happens to the bones. After the large, desirable meat pieces are removed, there is still a lot of good stuff left on the bone. Ditto that for fat trim … there is still a little bit of lean meat left in “fatty” trimmings. Now … how to make use of it? People have figured out a variety of ways to do this. You can (1) put chemistry on your side and understand how proteins and lipids function in order to separate them, or you can (2) arm yourself with some physics and engineering to separate them mechanically (those are just two examples). The result is a finely textured proteinaceous substance that looks like a paste. [No doubt about it, I am defending this as a “proteinaceous substance.” Keep in mind, though, that I also refer to butter as a lipid fraction of milk.]
Also take into consideration ergonomics and repetitive motion injuries. Trimming away every little bit of meat from a bone is tedious and time consuming. Thankfully, the meat processing industry understands the potential problems and costs with such work and has invested in technologies like advanced meat recovery to improve working conditions.
Alas, valuable protein has been saved from being wasted! It is then incorporated into other products, lowering its ultimate cost. Of course, the alternative (if meat consumption maintains its present level) would be to simply raise even more animals, and that would translate into added expense, not to mention even more criticism associated with livestock population and environmental “concerns.”
Yes, it’s regulated. Like all other meat products, the feds regulate this one, too. Its presence in any product must be labeled as “Mechanically Separated [Species].” And with that, you still have the information you need to make your food choices.
As for the comments made about the photo showed on HuffPo, there are a few things that seem a bit out of whack. First, the color question. Yes, the meat is pink. It is raw meat. When it is cooked (if not to be cured), it will turn characteristically white like chicken, turkey, and pork do. I’m just waiting for someone to “expose” the bologna making process. If you take a photo at the right time (between adding cure and cooking), you will see a grayish-brown goop that looks like something often associated with Huggies. Yet, once cooking is complete, all looks swell. Second, the safety intervention statement. It is not “so dirty it needs to be washed with ammonia.” Nearly all raw meats receive multiple food safety interventions per USDA requirements, right down to the local grassfed beef slaughtered at a mobile slaughter unit. That beef is likely sprayed with an acid solution.
Anyone have an idea about when there will be an imitation crab exposé?