‘Chicken ooze’ can turn up where you’d least expect to find it

Posted by
October 17, 2013

Last spring the revelation of “pink slime,” (or, “boneless lean beef trimmings,” as the industry calls it) filled the network newscasts and social media sites. And the fact that this disagreeable sounding ingredient, which is treated with ammonia hydroxide to kill pathogens, was dished up to school kids via the federal school lunch program was the pink icing on the cake.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last year that schools participating in this federally-subsidized school meal program will be allowed to opt out of using the pink stuff, and both McDonald’s and Burger King agreed to go slime free, which seemed to quiet the issue down. But it turns out that pink slime has a counterpart in chicken and turkey. If you didn’t know about it, then you’ve probably never heard of mechanically separated poultry (MSP), or as Food Identity Theft has dubbed it, “chicken ooze.”

I first mentioned “chicken ooze” in last week’s blog, finding it in a can of Chef Boyardee Pasta for kids. As you can imagine, many people who read that wanted to know more. So here’s the story, and we warn you, it’s not a pretty one:

Mechanically separated poultry is produced by taking the carcass (bones and all) of a chicken or turkey after most of the meat has been hand-removed, and processing it through a giant machine that crushes and separates bone, and mixes and filters what remains, creating a “paste-like” ingredient used in untold numbers of processed foods, including deli meats, frankfurters, and even baby food. MSP in fact, can be used “in the formulation of any poultry or meat food product.”

Now as you may have already guessed, this ooze-like substance that exits the giant crushing machine contains a bit more than just a “blend of soft tissue,” as the USDA refers to it. Exactly what it contains,  how much, and just what this ingredient should be called on food labels, cooked up a rather big regulatory stew over 18 years ago.

MSP has been in the food supply since 1969, at first, simply called chicken or turkey. In 1982, mechanically separated red meat products were required to be labeled as such, causing such a big rift between meat and poultry producers that Bob Evans Farms filed a lawsuit in 1993 claiming that it wasn’t fair to have to label mechanically separated beef when MSP got away with just being called “chicken” or “turkey.” After all, meat processors lamented at the time, ‘what consumer would knowingly buy a meat product containing ground-up bone’?

The court agreed with Bob Evans, and told the USDA to fix the labeling problem.

In 1995, after much debate, hand-wringing and comments from industry and consumers the USDA issued a final rule stating that MSP would have to be declared as such on an ingredient label. Industry was definitely not pleased with the decision, complaining that over 5,000 food products would require relabeling, representing a cost to manufacturers of over ten million dollars.

The ‘extras’

Along with the labeling requirement, the USDA also set limits on bone “particle size.” That’s right, not all bone fragments are filtered out of the giant machine. But not to worry, the rules prohibit MSP from containing more then one percent “bone solids,” and there can be no bone particles larger than two millimeters. Poultry processors are also allowed to “voluntarily maintain records of bone solids content…and particle size.”

But bone fragments aren’t the only concern. As it happens, MSP might also contain:

  • Bone marrow, which is high in cholesterol. The USDA said in its 1995 notice that information “on the actual amount of marrow in poultry bones is lacking.”
  • Chicken and turkey skin, which can also include feather particles and hair.
  • Scraps of lung tissue. While lungs are required to be removed from poultry, not being considered an “edible” part of the bird, many who commented on the final rule had concerns that lung tissue could be present in the finished MSP product.
  • Kidneys, which are OK, according to the USDA, as “the presence of kidneys in young poultry does not pose a health or safety concern.”
  • Sex glands, or immature sex glands to be exact, as mature reproductive organs cannot be present as “part of the carcasses.” But don’t fret over this as you enjoy a deli-meat sandwich, because according to the USDA, at the young age that most broiler hens are “marketed,” as they kindly word it, “the sex glands are merely a thin membrane covering over undefined tissue…”

Like its pink slime counterpart, it’s not surprising that chicken ooze would be an ingredient in, say, chicken nuggets (although McDonald’s says it no longer uses it in its Chicken McNuggets).  But when it turns up in a product like Chef Boyardee Pasta for kids it’s anyone’s guess what other processed foods it will be found in.

So be sure to stay tuned for next week’s blog where we will be listing all the products we’ve found containing “chicken ooze” so far.