‘Pink slime’ back in the headlines while ‘chicken ooze’ stays out of the news

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September 16, 2014



If we were to create a new food group, it might be simply known as “food goop.”

It would include the now notorious ground beef extender often referred to as “pink slime,” the “return” of which has once again made it the stuff of headlines, and the even worse (and far more prevalent) culinary culprit we’ve nicknamed “chicken ooze,” which has somehow managed to stay out of the news.

In case you haven’t been privy to the recent reports about the comeback of “pink slime,” this paste made from sanitized meat scraps, which is described as “finely textured beef,” and which became widely unpopular following an expose by ABC News, is now starting to be used again by a number of unspecified food retailers and processors. (For the record, it should be noted that the term “pink slime” is now the subject of a defamation lawsuit against ABC News.)

Not that it ever completely went away.  True, the consumer revulsion that followed the media accounts, which included a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist’s estimate that it was being used in 70 percent of ground beef, did cause many companies (along with the USDA’s School Lunch program) to drop it as an ingredient. And that, in turn, led to a number of plant closures.

However, with meat prices now on the rise and the media frenzy having died down, some food enterprises decided this might be as good time as any to start reusing it. As a result, two of its producers, Beef Products Inc., and Cargill, have reopened facilities that had previously been shut down, although Cargill says it no longer treats the stuff with ammonia hydroxide, but more palatable-sounding citric acid.

So where might this pate of beef remnants now be found? Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, Cargill is currently selling its version of the product to nearly 400 retail, food-service, and food-processing customers. And NPR has reported that “grocery stores and food processors, like the makers of lasagna and pasta sauce” are once again mixing the material into their ground beef. Some retailers, however, such as Kroger, Safeway and SuperValu, as well as fast-food chains like McDonald’s, have promised their customers that they wouldn’t be bringing it back.

Of course, such adverse publicity may have given some people the impression that it’s no longer allowed to be used (as a clerk in the meat department of our local supermarket thought). So, for the record, the extender created from such trimmings is still “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS) by the government, which doesn’t require it to be labeled as an added ingredient. (It also shouldn’t be confused with mechanically separated beef, which is removed by means of a different process and is now considered unfit for human consumption due to concerns about mad cow disease).

So, given the absence of a labeling requirement, how would you know if it’s being used or not if you’re intent on avoiding it? That depends.

If the item you’re wondering about is a Cargill processed beef product, you should see it on the label, since the company is now voluntarily providing that information. Cargill also lists “finely textured beef” on the boxes of ground beef it supplies to supermarkets – but while the stores are urged to inform their customers of the fact when they relabel the products, there’s no guarantee they will, according to a company spokesman.   So if you want to know about the ground beef in your supermarket’s meat case, probably the best way is to ask the meat manager. And if you’re concerned about other processed foods – or about what you’re getting at restaurant chains – your best bet would be to inquire as well.

‘Chicken ooze’ much easier to find – and identify.

No such inquiries, however, need be made in regard to “chicken ooze,” or mechanically separated poultry (MSP). That’s because, unlike those “finely textured” beef trimmings, the government requires that MSP be labeled, so all you need do is look at a product’s ingredients to see if it’s there. (And when you do, you may be surprised at how many processed foods contain it.)

And chicken ooze, as we’ve pointed out in previous blogs, may be far more gross than pink slime in terms of both its contents and the risk it poses for salmonella contamination.

As we first reported here last October, this cheap, toothpaste-like filler 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. But, MSP must be a listed ingredient, a rule imposed by the USDA back in 1995.

But then, there’s more to chicken ooze than just whatever scraps of meat are left on the carcass. There are also bone fragments (up to one percent), bone marrow, chicken or turkey skin (which can also include feather particles and hair), kidneys (which the USDA claims “do not pose a health or safety concern”) and immature sex glands.

And unlike the ill-reputed paste made from those beef trimmings, which is used to bulk up ground beef, the glop known as mechanically separated poultry is added to a wide variety of processed foods — products ranging from deli meats to corn dogs to “Lunchables.”

But though it’s much easier to spot, chicken ooze has so far avoided the spotlight. And given that it lacks the notoriety that the media have heaped on pink slime, it doesn’t appear that any of the manufacturers of these products will feel compelled to consign it to the scrap heap of processed-food history any time soon.