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The Real Story Behind Chicken Nuggets…

Well that “pink slime” controversy is rearing it’s ugly head again… But this time it isn’t about the beef. The suspect in question? Chicken. I am sure many of us remember this image of that “pink” substance many people were trying to say was lean finely textured beef.


Plain and simple, this is a meat emulsion. Not pink slime.

Skinless Hot Dogs

Skinless hot dogs being made

In reality, it’s hard to say what this substance really is. It’s quite likely that this is some kind of hot dog mix due to its color. When products like hot dogs or other finely ground products are made, often times we use what’s called an emulsifier. This is basically like a very large food processor which sends the ground meat mixture through a series of blades so the meat comes out very fine once its done. Emulsions are not something new to the meat industry and they aren’t something that should be defined as “gross”. Many high end meat shops create emulsions for products like pate and other artisan meat products. Emulsions look like something very similar to below and can vary on color depending on what it in them, spices, liquid smoke, types of meat used, and other factors can all play into what color the emulsion ends up being. Emulsions are NOT at all related to the same process as mechanically separated meat. In fact, the two are very different. The results, however, yield the same visual results. Basically, a paste-like, batter-like meat substance.

News sources across the nation and all over the Internet, however, are posting photos like the ones above calling out chicken nuggets as “false advertising” and not being made entirely of chicken. There is even a study done on two dissected chicken nuggets, which seem to show that chicken nuggets are made up of less than 50 percent muscle tissue.

Now the media has once again jumped on “exposing the secrets” behind this chicken “pink slime”. As with anything, we don’t tend to buy fear in our food. Our food shouldn’t be scary and we should feel confident about what we eat. So let’s break down some of these “secrets” about your chicken nuggets.

What is mechanically separated poultry?Boned out Chicken

First of all, there is such a thing as mechanically separated chicken, but NO your chicken nuggets are not made out of it. Mechanically separated poultry (MSP) has been used in poultry products since 1969. The process was created to allow meat processors to recover edible meat tissue from carcasses of animals. Prior to this, a large amount of meat scraps from food animals went straight to waste because processors had no efficient means of separating it from the bones after the rest of the meat (like breasts and thighs) were removed. Unstripped bones from chickens and turkeys are forced under high pressure through a type of sieve to separate edible meat tissue (muscle fiber, fat, and tendons) from the bones. What results from this process is a paste-like or batter-like substance that can be used in processed fully cooked, ready to eat meat products such as hot dogs, bologna, and other poultry based lunchmeats.

So is mechanically separated chicken made out of all parts of chicken?

No, the head and feet of the animal are removed long before the animal gets to this stage of production. MSC does not contain organ meat or any other byproducts. What processors are trying to recover is the meat between the ribs, near the vertebrae, around the joints, etc. Basically anywhere meat remains that cannot easily be boned out by hand. The product is also tested for calcium to assure that any trace amounts of bone material that may have made it into the mixture are not at levels higher than allowed by USDA standards.

It is important to note that just because there is a trace amount of bone material found in MSC, it does not make it unsafe or unhealthy. MSC as a raw product is actually higher in calcium and phosphorous than poultry meat such as breasts and thighs.

Does mechanically separated poultry use ammonium hydroxide much like Lean Finely Textured Beef does?

No, ammonium hydroxide is not used in the production of MSC.

How can I tell if mechanically separated chicken is in my food?

Hot DogsIf mechincally separated chicken is found in the food item, whatever it is may be. IT IS REQUIRED to be labeled. If you are looking to avoid, MSC then read  your food labels. Look for ready to eat products that don’t contain mechanically separated meat. Mechincally separated chicken is in no form offered to the general public in its raw form. Products like chicken patties, etc. are indeed made of ground whole muscle cuts. Check out the classic Oscar Mayer Hot Dog label, you can see both mechanically separated turkey and chicken are used.

So how are my chicken nuggets made then?

chicken breast with rib meat

chicken breast with rib meat

It may be true that in the past companies like McDonalds did use MSC in their chicken nuggets. But since 2003, McDonalds and many other food service companies have been using all white meat to make its infamous nuggets. Most chicken nuggets are made from breast meat and rib meat. Rib meat is a natural extension of the breast meat. It is not a filler or additive and it is not MSC. Other boneless meat from the thighs could be added.

The whole muscle meat is then marinated to enhance the meat’s flavor and juiciness but also helps extract the proteins to hold the nugget together. It is then diced or ground and then formed into a “nugget”… Think like a mini meatloaf. These little ground and formed nuggets are then breaded and cooked, usually baked or fried. Chicken nuggets are nothing to be afraid of. They remain a good source of protein for picky eaters like kids and can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.

For more information about mechanically separated chicken or chicken nuggets, please visit these resources. And please if you have any questions, please ask below!

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