Ground Poultry: What’s in that turkey burger?

GROUND POULTRY IS A STAPLE IN MY HOUSE. In the summer, we grill turkey burgers and as the weather grows cooler, I make a lot of chicken or turkey chili. Ground poultry is relatively inexpensive, flexible, and has less fat than ground beef.

But last time I made chili, sudden visions of Jamie Oliver’s chicken nugget experiment sent me scampering to the garbage to check the label of my meat: Ground Chicken.


Before I get into what the USDA web site says, note that the same label descriptions I wrote about for eggs hold true for poultry meat – organic, cage free, vegetarian, etc.

Now, here’s what the USDA web site has to say about ground poultry.

  • There are no regulatory standards for ground poultry products. The same rules apply as for “boneless poultry”: the product must be completely comprised of the kind of poultry indicated.
  • Ground Turkey/Chicken: When the product is labeled “Ground (Kind)”, it is made from whole muscle material (drumstick, thighs, neck, etc.) with all the skin, fat, and other components included.
  • Ground Turkey/Chicken Meat: If a cut of meat is identified on the label, only that cut can be in the product. For example, “Ground Turkey Meat” can’t contain skin, just meat.
  • Ground Turkey/Chicken Breast Meat: Same as above. If the cut is identified, the product can only contain breast meat without other cuts or skin.
  • Fat content is only allowed in natural proportions. Only the fat found in the muscle material or skin can be in the product. No extra fat may be added.
  • Nutrition labels are encouraged but not required unless the label states “lean” or “extra lean” in which case the nutrition label must be present and support those claims.

Then there’s mechanically separated poultry (MSP), which is used in hot dogs, nuggets, patties, bologna, etc. MSP is not the same as ground poultry. MSP is made by using high pressure machinery to crush the bones then force the bone and tissue through a sieve or screening device. The resulting substance has a “paste-like consistency and a cake-batter form.” Yum.

The bottom line: Make sure you get the ground poultry you really want — take the label literally. “Ground turkey” is different from “ground turkey meat” is different from “ground turkey breast meat”.

2 comments for “Ground Poultry: What’s in that turkey burger?

  1. Corey
    October 15, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Mechanically separated meat isn’t all that bad, it’s still meat, no bones, maybe more connective tissue – but with it being reduced to such small particles of connective tissue it doesn’t really present much in the way of increased toughness of the product. This meat reduces the amount of waste, and while it may not sound as appetizing, is really not that bad of a product, and it is not as widely used as people would have you believe.

    Also, with regards to hotdogs and the like – there isn’t every any eyeballs or weird stuff like that ground up into the meat… that’s not allowed – urban legend only these days – though before “The Jungle”- Sinclair (something that could be on the list of your books to read) things were different. Let me know if you have any questions.

    You can also not have any mechanically separated beef due to concerns over BSE.

    any questions? ask! Don’t just take my word for it either!

  2. cat
    October 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for the informative comment, Corey. Great information as always!

    In this case, there is nothing harmful about the product ingredients (conventional vs. organic chicken aside), but, like you suggested, it’s about the appeal of the food. The idea of MSP or ground poultry doesn’t sound appetizing to me so I will avoid it. But other people may not care so much.

    But either way, we should all know what we’re buying!

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