Fact Check

Pink Slime and Mechanically Separated Chicken

Text describes the process of producing mechanically separated chicken?

Published Jan. 25, 2012


Claim:   Text describes the process of producing mechanically separated chicken.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, September 2010]

Say hello to mechanically separated chicken. It's what all fast-food chicken is made from — things like chicken nuggets and patties. Also, the processed frozen chicken in the stores is made from it.

Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve — bones, eyes, guts, and all. it comes out looking like this.

There's more: because it's crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color.

But, hey, at least it tastes good, right?


Origins:   Mechanically separated meat (MSM) and mechanically separated poultry (MSP) are terms used to refer to products created by mechanization which allows meat processors to recover edible meat tissue from the carcasses of animals. Prior to the mid-20th century, a good deal of meat scraps and tissue from food animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys went to waste because

processors had no efficient means of separating it from the bones after the rest of the meat had been removed from carcasses. This recovery process was largely done manually (when it was undertaken at all) until the development of machines in the 1960s that automated the process, making it faster, cheaper, and higher-yielding.

Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like or batter-like meat product created by forcing unstripped bones under high pressure through a type of sieve to separate edible meat tissue (including tendons and muscle fiber) from the bones. Contrary to what is claimed above, the process does not involve the grinding up of entire animal carcasses ("bones, eyes, guts, and all") into one large, amorphous glob of meat; it is a technique for removing what is left on the bones of a carcass after all other processing has been completed. Also, although beef producers commonly treat meat products with small amounts of ammonium hydroxide as an anti-microbial agent, meat and poultry processors do not routinely soak MSM or MSP in ammonia.

MSM is typically used in cheaper meat products (such as hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and frozen dinners) which need not retain the appearance, shape, or texture of "regular" meat. In order to satisfy consumer preferences, food producers may utilize additives in MSM-derived products in order to alter their color, taste, or texture.

(Although McDonald's Chicken McNuggets are
typically offered as an example of a popular MSP-based food, since 2003 that product has been made with all white meat rather than MSP.)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), mechanically separated poultry is safe to eat and may be used without restriction, however in commercial food products it must be labeled as such:

Mechanically separated poultry (MSP) 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 the late 1960's. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as "mechanically separated chicken or turkey" in the product's ingredients statement. The final rule became effective November 4, 1996. Hot dogs can contain any amount of mechanically separated chicken or turkey.

Due to concerns over the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (commonly known as "mad cow disease"), the sale of MSM-derived beef products for human consumption in the U.S. was banned in 2004:

In 1982, a final rule published by FSIS (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) 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. It is not permitted in hot dogs or any other processed product.

Mechanically separated pork is permitted and must be labeled as "mechanically separated pork" in the ingredients statement. Hot dogs can contain no more than 20% mechanically separated pork.

A meat product known as "boneless lean beef trimmings" (BLBT) or "lean finely textured beef," pejoratively referred to as "pink slime," is often confused with mechanically separated meat, although it is produced by a different process. In order to extract pricer lean beef from less valuable, fattier trimmings, centrifuges are used to separate the fat out of the meat trimmings, and the resulting lean beef is then squeezed through small tubes, where it is exposed to a small amount of ammonia gas, producing a pinkish substance. Unlike MSM, lean beef trimmings are legal for sale in the U.S., although they are mixed in with other meat products (usually ground beef) and generally do not comprise more than 25 percent of the final meat products purchased by end consumers.

Critics contend that BLBT is an undesirable food product because it is more like gelatin than meat, and that because it is produced from low-grade trimmings most susceptible to contamination (such as those taken from areas close to the hide of the cow, which are highly exposed to fecal matter), it must be treated with ammonia to make it safe to eat. The American Meat Institute maintains that the characterization of BLBT as a sub-standard food product are unfounded:

Boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) is a safe, wholesome and nutritious form of beef that is made by separating lean beef from fat. To make the product, beef companies use beef trimmings, the small cuts of beef that remain when larger cuts are trimmed down. These trimmings are USDA inspected, wholesome cuts of beef that contain both fat and lean and are nearly impossible to separate using a knife. When these trimmings are processed, the process separates the fat away and the end result is nutritious, lean beef. It's a process similar to separating cream from milk.

Some recent media reports created a troubling and inaccurate picture, particularly in their use of the colloquial term 'pink slime.' The fact is, BLBT is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible. In fact, no process can somehow make an inedible meat edible; it's impossible. In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers' desire for leaner foods.

J.M. Hirsch performed a side-by-side taste comparison of hamburgers made from ground beef and from BLBT and reported the following results:

First, the unadulterated burger. The aroma was luscious. The meat was juicy, tender and nicely seared. Where I'd cut, juices slowly dribbled out onto the plate, collecting in a pool. The taste was savory and meaty, with big beefy flavor. The chew had just the right texture, substantial but giving. Basically, everything you would want in a burger.

The pink slime burger also was perfectly seared and drew me in with an equally alluring aroma. But no juices collected on the plate. Or dribbled out. Or were apparent in the meat in really any way. The taste was — OK. I took another taste of the first burger, then back to the pink slime burger.

It was not bad. But nor was it good. It was flat. I added more salt. No. It was simply one-dimensional.

And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn't leave me wanting another bite.

No U.S. regulations require the labeling of meat products to include information about the presence of BLBT. In general, the only way to ensure that a given meat product does not contain BLBT is to look for the words "USDA Organic" stamped on the meat or its packaging, which indicates that the product is pure meat with no filler.

In February 2012, fast food chains McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Burger King announced they would stop using BLBT in their food products. In March 2012, the grocery chains Kroger, Safeway, Supervalu, Bi-Lo, and Winn-Dixie announced they would stop buying BLBT products.

Additional information:

Meat Preparation Meat Preparation (USDA)

Last updated:   22 March 2012


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    The Charlotte Observer.   23 June 2009.

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    The New York Times.   21 September 1988.

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    ABCNews.com.   15 March 2012.

    Hirsch, J.M.   "'Pink Slime': Sounds Gross, But How Does It Taste?"

    The Huffington Post.   16 March 2012.

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    MSNBC.com.   31 January 2012.

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David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.