Label for Ground Bone in Processed Meats Debated

Times Staff Writer

The federal government’s proposal to allow small amounts of ground bone in certain processed meats without listing the controversial ingredient on product labels is under fire from consumer groups.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan would permit manufacturers to include up to 10% of mechanically separated meat (MSM) in certain foods without disclosure of the additive on labels.

Several consumer groups claim any such omission would be “false and misleading.”

MSM is formed when livestock carcasses--often covered with hard-to-remove meat fibers--are ground and then forced through a fine screen. The procedure is designed to prevent almost all of the skeletal structure from reaching the final product.


Critics, however, claim MSM contains between 5% and 10% bone particles. Industry representatives state the total amount of ground bone is considerably less than 5%.

Neither side, though, argues that MSM also includes marrow, cartilage and connective tissue.

Disclosure Requirement

At present, mechanically separated meat from beef or hog carcasses can constitute as much as 20% of items such as frankfurters, bologna, sausage pizza and a few other food products. However, the labels must clearly state that the compound is present.


Meat industry representatives have complained that this disclosure requirement has discouraged the use of MSM and, thus, places producers at an economic disadvantage. And, as a result, several have urged the USDA to change the rule.

“This is an ingredient we should use,” said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assn. “It is healthful and wholesome beyond scientific doubt.”

Mucklow also emphasizes that there are considerable financial reasons to encourage the use of MSM.

“The more edible meat taken off an animal then the lower the total cost of meat is,” she said. "(A processor) needs to use every scrap of meat that they can (for efficiency).”

Also fueling the livestock industry’s request, is that mechanically boned poultry is treated differently under federal regulations than similarly processed red meats.

In the late 1960s, the technology to bone chicken and turkey carcasses was in place, and soon-thereafter, was federally sanctioned. As a result, items such as chicken frankfurters, which contain MSM, are not required to disclose the ingredient on the label.

When the time came for mechanically separated red meat to be approved by USDA as a food ingredient--in 1977--consumer groups called for more extensive labeling requirements. Thus, the disparity was created.

Under the present proposal, a label could state that a product contains “extra calcium” if mechanically separated red meat is present at levels of less than 10% of the item’s total weight. (The labeling would have to be more specific, and actually list MSM, if the ingredient was present at levels between 10% and 20%.)


Among those advocacy groups at odds with the plan are the Community Nutrition Institute and the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, both Washington based.

In a recent report, Public Voice listed several reasons for its opposition to MSM. Foremost among these is a claim that the plan would allow manufacturers to “charge meat prices for ground bone.”

The group also said that USDA’s change in policy would make it possible to imply that a processed meat containing calcium--from the addition of MSM--was “particularly healthful” when this same item may also be high in fat or sodium. The plan also obscures the fact that ground bone is the source of the added calcium in these meat products, according to Public Voice,

The Community Nutrition Institute, which also issued a report on MSM, said there are additional health concerns about the product beyond calcium content.

“While USDA claims the substance is safe and wholesome, it prohibits the use of MSM in baby foods,” according to CNI’s report. “MSM is rich in cholesterol from bone marrow and individuals who are prone to gout are at risk if they consume (it). The substance also contains . . . (trace) levels of heavy metals . . . which are (normally) deposited in bone.”

Mucklow said there is nothing misleading about the proposal and that only a small fraction of the population may be sensitive to the addition of MSM.

This group would include those people considered hyper-absorbers of calcium, who must monitor their intake of the mineral, she said. In any event, those concerned about calcium would be alerted to the additional mineral content present in MSM processed meats by the statement on the label.

The USDA is accepting public comment on the mechanically separated meat proposal until Nov. 8. The agency’s final ruling on the matter will not be forthcoming until early 1989.


Those interested in contacting the agency on the issue may write to Policy Office, Attention: Linda Carey--FSIS Hearing Clerk, USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Room 3171-S, South Agriculture Building, Washington, DC 20250.

Lead’s Threat--Children--particularly those in urban areas--remain highly vulnerable to lead poisoning, according to local health officials.

Incidences of such toxicity, in fact, are still considered a “major health problem,” according to the L.A. County Department of Health Services’ newsletter.

Virtually any detectable level of the heavy metal in a child’s blood can trigger serious illness. For instance, once ingested from any of a number of sources lead can cause mental, behavioral and physical damage in children. Some of the symptoms include irritability, weight loss, stunted growth and sudden shifts in behavior, the county’s Public Health Letter reported.

The most common sources of poisoning are ingestion of lead-based paint chips, soil (particularly near freeways or homes with flaking paint), the ink from some newspapers and magazines, improperly glazed dishes, pewter or utensils, fumes from leaded gasoline and some herbal folk medicines.

As a precaution, the county recommends that infants between 9- and 15-months of age be tested at least once for the presence of lead by the family physician.

In the event tests prove positive, all such cases of elevated lead levels in a child’s blood must be reported to county health authorities, according to California’s health code. Once notified, public health nurses are sent to investigate the source of poisoning and then recommend remedial measures.