WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A leading national consumer rights group is poised to launch a media campaign against supermarkets that fail to notify customers they sell meat or meat products processed using deboning machines.
The group, the National Consumers League, said it is alarmed by recent U.S. Department of Agriculture findings that measurable amounts of marrow and bone and, in some instances, spinal cord tissue are found in mechanically separated meat, a process widely used by leading meat packers.
The campaign will also be directed at fast-food restaurants and name-brand sausage companies using meat removed in the bone presses.
The media campaign is intended to deter the purchase of beef and pork that's been mechanically deboned, and will amount to a consumer advisory with a good-guy and bad-guy list; the bad guys will be companies that don't notify their consumers they carry mechanically deboned meat.
The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, is relaying to its members the information about the USDA's handling of the bone-separating process and is letting supermarkets decide what's best for them. "It's up to the company," an FMI spokeswoman said. "We are advising the members to be well aware of what their suppliers are doing and discuss how they are separating the product."
In a January letter to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, John Farquhar, the FMI's vice president for scientific and technical services, expressed his concerns about questions raised over the content of mechanically deboned meat.
"It is our belief that consumers do not want or expect spinal cord or bone marrow in their ground beef or pork," he wrote. "Current regulations appear to support this consumer desire and understanding. FSIS should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure the regulation is being properly enforced, " he continued.
So far, no supermarkets have replied to the NCL's request. However, McDonald's, Burger King, Foodmaker and Shoney's have notified the NCL that they use only hand-deboned meat.
Tom Wenning, general counsel for the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., questioned whether it is prudent for the NCL to launch a media campaign about the efficacy of mechanical deboning. The USDA has not determined the process to be a public health threat and is dealing with the issue, he said.
In response to questions about marrow, bone and spinal cord being present in ground meat, the USDA earlier this year sent a no-spinal-cord-in-beef edict to its inspectors in meat packing plants. In addition, the agency's directive said that mechanically separated beef should be allowed to contain only minuscule amounts of ground bone, levels equal to meat that is deboned by hand.
Regarding extra marrow in meat -- which adds more cholesterol to the product -- the USDA is in the process of deciding whether to set limits. Additionally, there are discussions about testing methods that would further identify the presence of bone in mechanically separated meat.
"These steps are clearly not responsive to consumer needs and are no longer acceptable," wrote NCL President Linda Golodner to supermarket, fast-food restaurant and sausage company executives, asking them to advise their customers if they were using beef that's been mechanically deboned. "Assurances from your suppliers that they 'comply' with USDA regulations do not mean they are not hiding marrow-bone-spinal tissue concoctions in your meat."
The NCL and other consumer groups have argued bone shouldn't be allowed in meat because it adulterates the product. Should meat contain spinal cord material -- and the deadly Mad Cow disease ever surfaces in the United States -- then mechanically separated meat could become a clear path for the disease to spread, the consumer groups argue. Finally, having extra marrow in automatically deboned meat is a health issue the USDA should contend with, they maintain.
"I think it's a very legitimate consumer issue," said Bob Hahn, director of food safety at Public Voice for Food and Health Care Policy, Washington. Of particular concern is the evidence of spinal cords in mechanically deboned meat, he said.
"I don't want a food scare," he said. "But until we know more about this disease we should have multiple layers of protection. I think consumers have the right to know that when they buy ground beef or any type of ground meat in the supermarket that it could contain spinal cord tissue."
The American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., which represents the packers under attack, said in a statement that it's supporting the USDA's review of the deboning process and noted that "most companies" using the technology remove spinal cords from the process.