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[US] Everything you never wanted to know about meat

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    The Washington Post - Wednesday, May 1, 2002; Page F01 Meats Meet Machine By Robert L. Wolke One day at the store, I picked up a package of chicken franks. The
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2002
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      The Washington Post - Wednesday, May 1, 2002; Page F01
      Meats Meet Machine
      By Robert L. Wolke

      One day at the store, I picked up a package of chicken franks. The first
      ingredient listed was "mechanically separated chicken." I started looking
      at other prepared meat products and found "mechanically separated" beef and
      pork. This brought up a number of questions:

      1. What is mechanically separated meat?
      2. What is the meat mechanically separated from?
      3. What kinds of machines are used?
      4. What is the difference between mechanically separated meat and, say,
      hand-separated meat? And most important . . .
      5. Why is mechanically separated meat specifically listed on the label?

      The first time I saw those words on a label I said to myself, "What did you
      expect? Did you think the meat we buy is cut by blood-splattered workers in
      unsanitary slaughterhouses, slashing meat off the carcasses much as our
      prehistoric ancestors did?" (I hate it when I talk to myself
      disrespectfully like that.)

      Terrible truth be told, yes; that's the way it's often done. But that's
      another story. These days, machines supplement those workers by separating
      the meat more efficiently from the bone or, more accurately, removing the
      bones from the meat. (That answers your question No. 2.)

      After the animal is killed and its blood drained out (procedures that the
      meat industry delicately refers to as "immobilization" and
      "exsanguination"), what had previously been skeletal muscle, that is,
      muscle attached to the skeleton rather than muscular parts of the
      circulatory system, has officially become meat. But the carcass is not all
      meat; it contains internal organs, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments,
      fat and skin, all of which need to be excised during the subsequent stage
      of what might be called deconstruction.

      In many cases, machines can remove more meat from the bones than even the
      most skillful workers with knives can. But they can't produce whole cuts of
      meat, as humans with saws and knives do; they produce meat either as small
      trimmings or in a paste form. (That answers question No. 4.)

      There are two general types of meat-removing machines, depending on whether
      the bones are first crushed: Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) systems and
      Mechanically Separated Meat (MSM) systems.

      In AMR machines, the meat is scraped or shaved off the bones in small
      pieces. The USDA allows it to be labeled with words such as "beef
      trimmings," "ground pork" and the like. But if it contains more than 150
      milligrams of bone calcium per 100 grams of product, it must be labeled
      "mechanically separated."

      In MSM machines, the bones are first crushed, after which the soft tissues
      (muscle and fat) are forced through a sieve, separating them from bones,
      cartilage, ligaments and tendons. (Answer to question No. 3.) What comes
      out looks like fibrous ground meat. That's "Mechanically Separated Meat"
      (answer to question No. 1), and the USDA requires that it be labeled as
      such (answer to question No. 5).

      The mechanical separation process is used mostly for poultry and fish
      because their bones, when crushed, don't shatter into small fragments that
      might pass through the sieve. Mechanically Separated Meat is nearly
      boneless, but it may contain bone particles the size of table salt grains
      and, so for better or for worse, is high in calcium, as you can see in any
      product label's Nutrition Facts chart. In the case of beef or pork,
      Mechanically Separated Meat is limited by the USDA to 20 percent in hot
      dogs and bologna.

      And while you're peering into the meat case, you may also see hot dogs
      labeled as containing "Variety Meats." This is a euphemism for any or all
      of the following: brains, hearts, large intestines (chitterlings), kidneys,
      livers, spleens (melts), pancreas and thymus glands (sweetbreads), lips and

      Other parts of animals that may find their way into hot dogs, sausages and
      other mystery meats are blood, marrow, cheeks and other head trimmings,
      feet (trotters), tails (oxtails), stomachs (hog maw), lungs (lights), small
      intestines (sausage casings), skins (pork rinds), stomach linings (tripe),
      and testicles (fries, prairie oysters or mountain oysters).

      Robert L. Wolke (www.professorscience.com) is professor emeritus of
      chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of "What Einstein
      Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions" (Dell,
      $12.95). His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science
      Explained" (W.W. Norton, hard cover, $25.95). Send your questions to

      © 2002 The Washington Post Company
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