What's wrong with mechanically separated meat (MSM)?
April 9, 2012 2:32 AM   Subscribe

What's wrong with mechanically separated meat (MSM)?

There's plenty of images on the web of MSM, like the ones of the Chicken McNuggets.

But is it really that harmful? Is it much worse than "processed meat" (e.g. beef burgers)?
posted by gttommy to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The majority of complaints are fueled by 'ew gross' and misinformation. Its not harmful (people were eating it for decades, they just didn't know it), just disgusting. Its also worth pointing out that the beef version is in about 70% of ground beef in US stores, its likely in plenty of beef burgers - even ones you made yourself.
posted by missmagenta at 2:48 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

MSM implies big industrial scale-up implies large-scale mixing implies large-scale homogeneity implies susceptibility to food-borne pathogens such as e. coli, salmonella, etc.
posted by telstar at 3:01 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fooducate, a fairly reasonable and usually decently researched/written nutrition blog, says

It’s always a better to choice to see a real cut of meat at the butcher counter in the supermarket and then decide what you want done with it. Buying something prepared in a factory, such as chicken nuggets, or hot dogs, you’ll always get the worst meat, and it will always be combined with additives and other sources of fat.

I, life-long vegetarian, am not terribly well-qualified to answer this, but my understanding is that the reason one doesn't want to buy much heavily processed meat is fairly analogous to the reason one doesn't want to buy much heavily processed anything: it's got additives along with the plain "chicken" or "beef" you wanted, it's not fresh, taste takes a hit, it's guaranteed that you'll be getting a poor quality version of the original product, and so on.

Wikipedia has pages on Mechanically separated meat, Meat slurry, Pink slime, etc.
posted by kmennie at 3:02 AM on April 9, 2012

The current outcry seems to center around the fact that they use ammonia to sanitize it. "OMG, I don't want to eat ammonia." The truth is that ammonia is a gas and evaporates from the meat. Otherwise, the meat would smell like ammonia.

But yes, it is just ground beef (or chicken or whatever) that is just more finely ground and has been sanitized. Nothing I've read says that it has any additives in it.

Yes, the large scale mixing means that food borne pathogens can get mixed in, but properly butchered meat shouldn't have any of that to begin with.
posted by gjc at 4:39 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to educate yourself on this topic, a nice overview of the modern food industry is the documentary Food Inc. MSM, and where it comes from, is featured heavily. If you watch it, you'll get a (blurry, slightly biased) overall picture of what the term "processed food" really means, and afterwards you'll have lots of leads to follow up on, books to read, things to google. That's what I did for several weeks the first time I saw it.

The thing is, MSM isn't toxic, it's not poison. If processed correctly (big if), it's not overtly dangerous. It's definitely gross. A product created to meet a certain kind of demand. Since it won't kill you, it's then an exercise for the reader to determine what, precisely, is wrong with it. If you have money, if you have access to real food (which are two other big if's), then you don't have to eat it. I can afford to, so I avoid it except if I'm drunk at 4AM and feel compelled to eat something disgusting. I pay more for food, but that's something I choose to do. You have to decide what's right for you.

"What's wrong with it" isn't the right question. "What is it" is the right question. Then you can decide how you feel. Nullius in verba.
posted by tracert at 5:03 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bone chips.
posted by flabdablet at 5:07 AM on April 9, 2012

I've read some of the literature about it, and the links listed above are good sources for that. If you just want the cliffs notes then the gist of it is that chemicals are added to ground meat because the process of butchering animals often means that the parts of the animal we don't eat (entrails, blood, etc) come in contact with the parts we do. It's a process that's been validated and approved by the FDA and, like mentioned above, has been in use for many years.

I actually find it quite surprising that people are putting up so many red flags with this though, considering the "how sausage is made" quote has been around for many many years. This, essentially, is the same concept.
posted by Blue_Villain at 5:36 AM on April 9, 2012

The "how the sausage is made" concept is the point here. When we could just not think about what goes into our burgers and eat them, all was fine. The media blowing this up into a bigger deal than it probably deserves has made us all confront the fact that our burgers aren't as wholesome as we thought. Another issue that people probably aren't thinking of. Assuming ground beef consumption doesn't change, the 15% of the product that was processed by products will have to be made up with higher quality beer, which means an increase in cows slaughtered.
posted by COD at 5:51 AM on April 9, 2012

Bone chips.

Yeah, the US government set limits on the amount of MSM in specific foods due to concerns about excessive doses of calcium, presumably from bone shavings.
posted by mediareport at 5:51 AM on April 9, 2012

the process of butchering animals often means that the parts of the animal we don't eat (entrails, blood, etc) come in contact with the parts we do.

There's shit in the meat, in simpler terms.
posted by mediareport at 5:54 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

There was a recent thread here on this stuff, with plenty of discussion. The main problems people seem to have with MSM seem to be:
- it's made out of unpleasant parts of the animal
- the need for sterilisation suggests that it may not be being handled very well
- it isn't really "meat" and labelling it as such is misleading.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:02 AM on April 9, 2012

Best answer: All meat is going to have bacteria, most of which will not be harmful or exist in harmful quantities. Significant contamination for meat from a given animal may be rare, but the more animals involved in a given end product, the higher the chance of contamination. In addition, contamination on ground meat products if more of a concern than on whole meat products, because the bacteria is distributed throughout the meat. This is why there is usually some kind of sanitation step in mechanically separated meat. Some people are concerned about the meat itself, and some people are concerned about the process of sanitation.

How sausage is made is not at all the point. The point is that people have an entirely unrealistic mental image of meat processing, and there is in fact a significant difference between a meat product containing parts from tens of animals (sausage the way most people think of it) and one containing parts from hundreds or thousands of animals (mechanically separated meat, commercial ground beef).

Given that the meat industry has a lot more sway than it should over it's regulatory agency, and that we keep seeing things like laws making it specifically illegal to film inside slaughterhouses, I think it is fairly legitimate to have concerns. Personally, I think the risk of msm is probably about the same as with commercial ground beef, the problem being the number of animals contributing to the product vastly increasing the odds of contamination. As a healthy person with a working immune system, that risk does not worry me too much, but I still buy better quality stuff when I can.
posted by Nothing at 6:03 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

"A Timeline of Pink Slime" from Food Safety News will give you more background.

Of note--

2002: USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein tours a BPI plant as part of an investigation into recent contamination. He coins the term "pink slime" in an email to colleagues, adding, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."

2003: Officials in Georgia return 7,000 pounds of LFTB after state prison cooks complain of strong ammonia odors in 60-pound blocks of the product meant to be served to prisoners.

2005-2006: Food processing giant Cargill suspends three of its processing plants for excessive Salmonella, two of which were BPI plants.

2006: Federal school lunch officials find E. coli O157:H7 in BPI products, stopping shipments before they got to schools.

August 2009: Federal school lunch officials find E. coli O157:H7 in BPI products for a third time, stopping shipments.

March 28, 2012: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad hold a press conference in Des Moines in an effort to dispel LFTB's negative image. Vilsack defends the product's inclusion in the school lunch program because of its safety, low fat content and relatively cheap price. That night, satirical news anchor Jon Stewart tackles the issue, suggesting that instead of "pink slime" or "lean finely textured beef," consumers adopt the term "ammonia-soaked centrifuge separated byproduct paste."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:04 AM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

it's neither bone chips nor shit that I worry about, but nervous system tissue. adding, in essence, offal to ground beef increases the risk of transmitting mad cow illness significantly.
posted by acm at 6:13 AM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Same site, from Marion Nestle: "'Pink Slime:' Some Questions About What's Really at Stake": "...even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable--especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:15 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

As mentioned in the thread A Thousand Baited Hooks linked to, according to this book in 1995 in the UK the use of cattle vertebrae in making it was banned due to concern about BSE / mad cow disease, then in 2001 all MRM from sheep, cattle, and goats was banned because of belief that the nervous tissue couldn't be kept out of the product.
posted by XMLicious at 6:21 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Otherwise, the meat would smell like ammonia.

In the beginning, it did; there were lots of complaints. The amount has been tweaked.

The end product isn't dangerous.

Your certainty is poorly placed; USDA and FDA inspectors have been complaining for years they're stretched so thin they can't keep up with required inspections. More directly, here's a 2009 NYT article about consistent findings of salmonella and e. coli in BPI's beef going to schools:

Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed the company’s ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products...

But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.

In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show. Yet the facility remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers. Presented by The Times with the school lunch test results, top department officials said they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years.

In response, the agriculture department said it was revoking Beef Products’ exemption from routine testing and conducting a review of the company’s operations and research. The department said it was also reversing its policy for handling Beef Products during pathogen outbreaks. Since it was seen as pathogen-free, the processed beef was excluded from recalls, even when it was an ingredient in hamburgers found to be contaminated.

And you know, given that there's long been a revolving door between the heads of organizations like the USDA and FDA and the industries they're supposed to regulate, I think it's just plain wise in general to be a bit skeptical of safety pronouncements coming from that direction.
posted by mediareport at 6:45 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

We should be aware that all fast food meat is "batched" from a huge number of animals, not just MSM.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:53 AM on April 9, 2012

This stuff is separated out using centrifuges and similar devices. It has no texture left when it's done. That isn't very appealing.

Also, corners get cut all the time when generating the stuff. Since it's a homogenate, you can't tell if something that wasn't supposed to end up in there is part of the mixture.
posted by Citrus at 7:06 AM on April 9, 2012

MSM is just not very appealing food. I imagine it is as safe as any other industrially produced beef, and Americans are terribly conflicted when it comes to food safety vs. food quality vs. cost. See also: the debate over irradiated meats. Now that MSM has been branded "pink slime" no one wants it.

I was curious about the "pink slime" phrase; the origin is widely attributed to Gerald Zirnstein, a USDA scientist who used the term in an internal email in 2002. The New York Times reported the phrase in 2009, then Jamie Oliver picked it up on a TV show in 2011.
posted by Nelson at 7:17 AM on April 9, 2012

In further Googling about this stuff I came across a nicely detailed 2002 Taiwanese paper (in English) describing the worldwide use of meat industry by-products.
posted by XMLicious at 8:33 AM on April 9, 2012

Best answer: Part of what is wrong with it is that it is a fix for a problem that shouldn't be happening in the first place. The meat is treated with chemicals in order to sanitize it because it is almost certainly contaminated with pathogens. It prevents us from having to rethink how we raise most of our meat animals and how we price meat in general.

Would you eat arsenic containing carrots is I told you that I had treated them with a chemical to remove the arsenic? Or would you ask me why there is arsenic in the carrots in the first place?

You can eat it. But why should you?
posted by The Violet Cypher at 10:33 AM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

For me, it's the possibility of getting spinal cord tissue into the meat undetectably, due to the way the meat is sort of clawed off the spine of the animal. I live in an area where there were recalls of ground beef due to possible BSE contamination. E.Coli and salmonella can be destroyed through heat; prions can't.
posted by KathrynT at 10:45 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

> For me, it's the possibility of getting spinal cord tissue into the meat undetectably, due to the way the meat is sort of clawed off the spine of the animal. I live in an area where there were recalls of ground beef due to possible BSE contamination. E.Coli and salmonella can be destroyed through heat; prions can't.

Seconded. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease is a cruel, heartbreaking disease.
posted by desuetude at 7:27 PM on April 9, 2012

Best answer: MSM surely has different nutritional properties than whole-muscle meat. I don't have numbers, but I would assume, and this seems to be backed up by mediareport's comment, that it's higher in calcium (not always a good thing), and probably more similar to the other offal/parts-of-an-animal-we-don't-want-to-eat than what we tend to think of as meat. Different kinds of protein to be sure.

I don't know if the ammonia denatures the proteins or not. If so, you're basically eating pre-cooked meat. If not, it doesn't destroy potentially dangerous prions (BSE, CJD).

If you're looking at "processed meat," you're probably already looking at some percentage (probably the maximum allowed) of MSM.
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:23 AM on April 10, 2012

Another primer on the differences between meat, mechanically separated meat, and advanced meat recovery.

Health concerns for MSM: "Mechanically separated beef was prohibited for use as human food in 2004 due to concerns that spinal tissue (potentially carrying mad cow disease) could get mixed into the meat. Mechanically separated poultry and pork are still allowed."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:27 AM on April 16, 2012

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