The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that the microbiological and chemical hazards associated with mechanically separated meat derived from poultry and pigs were similar to those related to non-mechanically separated meat.
However, the risk of microbial growth increases with the use of high pressure production processes.
Furthermore, this process resulted in greater muscle fibre degradation and an associated release of nutrients which provide a favourable substrate for bacterial growth.
The report clearly distinguished between “high-pressure” mechanically separated meat, which is paste-like and can be used in products such as hotdogs; and “low-pressure” mechanically separated meat, which is similar in appearance to minced meat.
“EFSA’s opinion concludes that possible microbiological risks associated with mechanically separated meat are similar to those related to non-mechanically separated meat,” stated EFSA. It added that most risks stemmed from the contamination of raw materials and from poor hygiene practices during meat processing.
“However, high pressure production processes increase the risk of microbial growth. In fact these processes result in greater muscle fibre degradation and an associated release of nutrients which provide a favourable substrate for bacterial growth. In relation to chemical hazards, experts from EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the food chain advise that no specific chemical concerns are expected provided that Maximum Residue Levels are respected,” it said.
When high-pressure methods are used, the carcass or the meat parts are pressed through a machine-like sieve. When low-pressure methods are used, the meat is mechanically scraped from the carcass.
Currently in the EU, mechanically separated meat can be produced from poultry and pork but not from bovines, sheep and goats.
Mechanically separated meat must be clearly labelled as such and does not count as part of the stated meat content of the product. High pressure mechanically separated meat must be immediately frozen and can only be used in cooked products.
The Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) has now developed a model to distinguish between mechanically separated meat from non-mechanically separated meat, by monitoring the calcium released from bone during processing.
“This model will assist policy makers as well as food operators and inspectors in differentiating mechanically separated meat from non-mechanically separated meat,” said EFSA.
In order to improve the differentiation between mechanically separated meat obtained through low pressure techniques and hand deboned meat, EFSA recommends the use of specifically designed studies to collect data on potential indicators.
This has led some meat industry insiders to hope that lower pressure mechanically separated meat could eventually be permitted on animals other than pigs.