Airing last evening on CNBC was episode 6 in season two of West Texas Investors Club. Among the two presenters looking for an investment were the two ladies of Hip Chick Farms, makers of humanely sourced and minimally processed frozen chicken products such as chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, and chicken meatballs. The investors had them stage a demonstration at a grocery store for a local audience of mostly young children and parents. To demonstrate how cheap chicken nuggets are made, the ladies pulled a Jamie Oliver pink slime deal, and cut all the usable parts off a chicken and used only the carcass to make chicken nuggets.
They chopped up the carcass, bones and all, as much as possible, threw the whole thing in the food processor, and ground it up to make a paste. They were then able to show a shocked audience a gray unappetizing chicken nugget, made with “chicken carcass” including the bones! Is this how cheap chicken nuggets are made? Are parents feeding their children ground up bones?
No. The demonstration was completely inaccurate and quite preposterous. I was surprised the audience bought into it so completely. Why would anyone believe that U.S. food regulation allowed ground up chicken bones to be used in chicken intended for human consumption?
To be clear, cheap chicken nuggets are made from the leftover chicken, still attached to the carcass or any other bony parts, that are not the ‘good parts,’ as the ladies called them. During any animal processing, there is always some leftover, hard to get at meat or poultry. These leftovers are used to make what is called mechanically separated poultry (MSP). Yes, there is grinding involved, but the chicken must then be forced through a sieve or a similar device under high pressure to separate the bone from the edible tissue.
I’d like to make something clear. This “edible” tissue is perfectly edible chicken. There is nothing about it that is bad for humans, and to pretend that it is bad for humans is based solely on “moral outrage.” Just as when you eat a chicken wing you might nibble every last bit of chicken off the bone, chicken processors want to get every last bit of usable chicken off the bone. To do less would be to waste perfectly edible food. There is nothing ‘ethical’ in wasting food!
It is possible, from time to time, for bits of bone to find their way into mechanically separated chicken. In order to pass through the processing, these bits have to be very small. There are also bits of “gristle” or ligament and tendon, as well. None of this is harmful, although you may not find it appetizing. If there are bone particles, their size must not be larger than 1.5 mm x 2.0, and according to the Code of Federal Regulation, Part 9, 381.173:
Mechanically Separated (Kind of Poultry)” is any product resulting from the mechanical separation and removal of most of the bone from attached skeletal muscle and other tissue of poultry carcasses and parts of carcasses that has a paste-like form and consistency, that may or may not contain skin with attached fat and meeting the other provisions of this section. Examples of such product are “Mechanically Separated Chicken” and “Mechanically Separated Turkey.”
Mechanically Separated (Kind of Poultry)” shall not have a bone solids content of more than 1 percent. At least 98 percent of the bone particles present in “Mechanically Separated (Kind of Poultry) “ shall have a maximum size no greater than 1.5 mm (millimeter) in their greatest dimension and there shall be no bone particles larger than 2.0 mm in their greatest dimension.
Product resulting from the mechanical separation process that fails to meet the bone particle size or calcium content requirements for “Mechanically Separated (Kind of Poultry)” shall be used only in producing poultry extractives, including fats, stocks, and broths and labeled as “Mechanically Separated (Kind of Poultry) for Further Processing.”
Only chicken products labeled with mechanically separated poultry (or meat) are allowed to have this minimum amount of bone particles. There may also be skin with attached fat, and other tissues. It is the high proportion of skin in some chicken nugget products that you may want to think about, rather than the little bit of bone or connective tissue. Chicken skin provides a sticky consistency in pastes made from chicken, so this helps hold the chicken nugget together. It also provides a lot of calories, which, together with frying, make chicken nuggets a higher calorie food than they necessarily need to be.
To repeat, it is true that cheap chicken nuggets most probably will contain a bit of (very small) bone. It is not true that the intention is to simply use the entire chicken carcass, bones and all. There is no doubt that more expensive chicken nuggets made from white meat chicken are much better tasting, although not necessarily better for you, depending on other ingredients used.
A lot has been made about a test performed on chicken nuggets by Dr. Richard deShazo, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. According to him, (typical) chicken nuggets are only 50% meat, and the rest is fat, ground bone, blood vessels, and connective tissue. The ground bone issue has been addressed already. As for the blood vessels and connective tissue, if you eat fried chicken or any chicken off the bone, you’ve ingested these to some extent. They may seem “gross” but they are not going to hurt you. However, this ‘test’ was an informal test carried out by a couple of doctors who ordered some chicken nuggets from fast food restaurants near where they worked. This was not a formal scientific investigation, and the sample size, two orders of chicken nuggets, was too tiny to be of much use. They looked at the chicken under a microscope and couldn’t understand what they saw. No definitive analysis was made of the components of the chicken nuggets. Yet, they claimed “The predominate component is not healthy, lean chicken meat, a great source of healthy protein,” he says, “but an adulterated chicken product containing 50 percent or less chicken meat, with other chicken components, in a suspension of unknown carrier material.”
This language is confusing, at best. First, an adulterated chicken product: The word adulterated in food refers to things being added to food that have no business at all being in the food item. An example would be a ground herb adulterated with various ground up plants. To say that the “chicken product” was adulterated is to say that the other ingredients in the chicken served no purpose. These would be ingredients like binders and fillers. Whether or not you want to eat a chicken nugget that is only partially chicken with the rest being other ingredients, the ingredients do not fit the definition of adulteration. The language used implies that even the chicken is not chicken. Cheap chicken nuggets are a mixture of ground chicken (with a small amount of bone, skin, and connective tissue) and other ingredients. If you want better, you have to pay for better.
While you may or may not approve of the additional ingredients added to chicken nuggets, the actual chicken is not going to hurt you and contains just as much protein as any other chicken, there simply is less of it. Whether the product tastes good, and whether its sensory qualities are as pleasing as another more expensive nugget, is another story. All chicken nuggets are made with ground up chicken of some kind. If they weren’t they’d be chicken fingers or chicken tenders. Incidentally, after the chicken carcass nuggets were demonstrated, the ladies compared their own chicken fingers, just like ones you’d make at home, to “extruded pink slime” made from chicken breast made ground in a food processor, to which water and filler were added. Of course, a “chicken nugget” made from whole muscle is going to win out over a chicken nugget made from any mixture. In reality, the comparison was unfair, as chicken nuggets should be compared to chicken nuggets, not whole meat chicken tenders.
While I have no doubt that Hip Chick Farms chicken products are tasty and extremely high quality (although I call BS on the word artisan), and I can get behind the company’s commitment to humane treatment and humane harvesting (euphemism for slaughtering or killing), I object to the misinformation presented in the program to differentiate their product from the competition. While I am quick to point out when I think someone is being blatantly dishonest, or bullshitting, I do not think they were being intentionally dishonest but have been misinformed about how mechanically separated poultry is made and regulated. One thing they are right about; cheap chicken nuggets contain very little chicken and a whole lot of mostly corn-based binders and fillers. You can learn a little more about them in Who Invented Chicken Nuggets?
Hip Chick Farms products do seem to be of the highest quality, from quality ingredients, and made from chicken that is as minimally processed as possible, with as few added ingredients as possible. Although I hope they will correct the information about MSP in the future, I do wish them success in their business and despite my criticism here, I would buy their products and feed them to my family, if they showed up in a store nearby. Starting a food production business takes a lot of drive and guts!
Regardless, whether you buy an expensive chicken nugget or a cheap one, rest assured it was not made from a chicken carcass thrown into a food processor, bones and all.
By the way, while you’re here, you can read about whether McDonald’s chicken nuggets are made from mechanically separated chicken.