ANALYSIS - A new study from the European Commission's Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) could lead the way to a new definition of mechanically recovered or mechanically separated meat, writes Chris Harris.
The study shows that the quality of the meat that is recovered under either high or low pressure can be determined by examining the calcium and also the cholesterol content.
It has also shown that high pressure separation of the meat from the bones has a greater effect on the muscle fibres than low pressure separation and consequently makes the product more susceptible to bacteria contamination.
The results of the research leave the way open to potentially more regulation and restriction on the way that MSM is used in food products.
Mechanically separated meat is defined by the European Commission in Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 as being obtained by removing meat from flesh-bearing bones after boning or from poultry carcases, using mechanical means and resulting in the loss or modification of the muscle fibre structure.
Mechanical recovery of meat is restricted to species such as pig and poultry and is not allowed for ruminants, largely because of concerns over specified risk material and BSE contamination.
It is also distinguished from desinewed meat - a beef product that has been banned by the European Commission from use in meat products such as burgers and it is also a different product from the Lean Finely Textured Beef product that recently caused an outcry in the US and has led to the failure of some specialist meat processing companies.
Based on the current EU Regulation, low and high pressure MSM products are defined according to the alteration of bone structure and calcium content.
The EU upper limit for low pressure MSM is 100 mg/100 g (1000 ppm) calcium.
MSM with calcium concentration above this threshold is considered to be high pressure MSM.
Different interpretations of the definition of MSM have led to low pressure MSM products being considered as meat preparations by some countries in the European Union.
The study found that the microbial hazards that may be present in MSM depend on the hygiene of processing, the levels and types of contamination present in the raw materials and their storage history.
Microbial hazards in pork and poultry MSM are expected to be similar to those in fresh meat, minced meat and meat preparations.
However, the researchers found that the risk of microbial growth increases with the degree of muscle fibre degradation and the associated release of nutrients and more uniform spreading of contamination.
This means that high pressure MSM may provide a more favourable substrate for bacterial growth compared to low pressure MSM.
By analysing the available data, the researchers at BIOHAZ realised that the calcium content of the MSM distinguished it from non-MSM products and as low pressure MSM contains fewer bone particles, the calcium content was also a way to distinguish between low and high pressure MSM.
However, this is not the only way to tell the difference between the two products.
The researchers also found that the cholesterol content could be used to distinguish between MSM and non-MSM products.
Other chemicals present in the products such as iron, protein and potash showed differences, but these variations were so small that they could not be used easily to tell the products apart.
The BIOHAZ Panel recommended that, based on changes in processing and properties of MSM products, the classification of raw meat recovered after deboning should be based on certain parameters of the final products, such as calcium content.
The panel also called for new terminologies for low and high pressure MSM, because technological advances have resulted in low pressure products resembling minced meat.
The panel also called for additional studies and more work to improve the way MSM products are identified.
The concerns for the industry are that with this new research the way has been paved for more regulation on the use of MSM in meat products, with the different definitions of high and low pressure meat recovery.
In the US, the collapse of companies and the demise of lean finely textured beef followed moves from companies such as McDonalds' to bar its use in their products.
In the EU, desinewed beef has been banned because of perceived safety concerns and celebrity chefs in Europe have also led campaigns against mechanically recovered meat products.
There have even been allegations that the recent horse meat in beef products scandal has been spurred on by the ban on desinewed beef.
In setting the original regulations, the European Commission estimated that the total amount of MSM produced is close to 700,000 tonnes a year, with high pressure MSM representing 77 per cent and low pressure MSM 23 per cent of the total products.
Regarding the species, 88 per cent of MSM comes from poultry and 12 per cent from pigs and 20 per cent of MSM is exported.
The total value of the reported MSM production has been estimated at between €400 and €900 million a year.
With the product showing such value to the industry, any changes to the regulations and any restrictions forced on its use, whether from the European Commission and food agencies or customers and consumers, could be extremely damaging to the processing sector.
And it also raises the question whether such a source of protein should or will be consigned to the waste bin.