Thanks To Policy Change, Your Ground Beef May Include More Heart Than You Think

For nearly 40 years federal food safety regulators had prohibited the use of any part of the cow heart in making ground beef. With little fanfare, that policy has changed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) quietly revamped the long-standing policy recently, essentially allowing companies to include as much heart meat (more on what that means later) in their ground beef products as they desire, reports (subscribers only).

Under the 1981 policy — known as Policy Memo 27 [PDF pg. 24] — chopped beef, ground beef, and hamburger should be made of components of beef or skeletal origin.

“Heart meat and tongue meat, as organ meats, are not acceptable ingredients in chopped beef, ground beef or hamburger,” the policy states.

At the time, FSIS’s rationale for prohibiting heart and tongue in ground beef was that they had never been “considered as beef or permitted to be declared as beef on labels and are not expected ingredients in chopped beef, ground beef, or hamburger.”

However, without publicly releasing a new policy, FSIS had a change of (forgive me) heart on the matter.

TAKE THE QUIZ: See if you know your way around organ meats

In a post on the AskFSIS site dated July 25, 2016, the agency explains that beef heart meat “can be used in unlimited quantities and declared as ‘beef’ on the label.”

It’s important to distinguish between beef heart meat and just plain old beef heart. The meat that is allowed in ground beef is limited to “cardiac muscle trimmed from the ventricular wall of a beef heart.” The rest of the heart — the aorta, atria, pericardial fat, etc. — is “meat byproduct,” according to FSIS, and “not permitted components of chopped beef, ground beef, or hamburger.”

While ground beef producers can now include as much heart meat as they want, it still looks like they are limited when it comes to the use of beef cheek. According to USDA policy [PDF pg 67], cheek meat can only account for up to 25% of the ground beef product before requiring a special label.

UPDATE: In a statement provided by USDA after we published this story, a rep for the agency explains that the decision to allow the use of heart meat wasn’t officially a change in regulations, but instead a clarification of existing rules:
“There is no change to FSIS regulations. Ground beef that consumers purchase every day is made up of various cuts of meat, as allowed under federal regulations. The addition of heart and tongue meat to ground beef does not make it any less safe or wholesome to consume.”

It appears that this change — which not even many in the industry appeared to know about — was announced via a Federal Register notice in Aug. 2015.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.