Hearts in Our Hamburger

The USDA recently made the call to allow “wholesome” beef heart and tongue meat into ground beef. Previously, the USDA has used the rules of “Policy Memo 027”, which stated that beef hearts and tongues weren’t something consumers would expect in ground beef and therefore should be kept out of it.

This policy has been followed for the last forty years, but now all of a sudden it has been reinterpreted.  Aaron Lavallee, the deputy assistant administrator in the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, states that “The addition of heart and tongue meat to ground beef does not make it any less safe or wholesome to consume,” and “there is no change to FSIS regulations.”

With no change to policy on paper, why has the USDA suddenly decided to view their 40-year-old policy in a different light? Beef hearts and tongues are notoriously cheaper than many other cuts of meat, and it is important to note that not all parts of the heart are being considered viable for hamburger; the arteries, aorta, etc. are still considered by-products and only the cardiac muscle is being used for consumption.

The most concerning part of this development is that the FSIS is saying that heart and tongue meat have never been banned from hamburger in the first place, though the USDA online policy book states that “Heart meat and tongue meat as organ meats are not acceptable ingredients in chopped beef, ground beef, or hamburger” (Food Standards & Labeling Policy Book, page 67). The policy book sourced is dated August of 2005, and Lavallee states that “We know that the policy labeling book from 1982 was not accurate and it did not mesh with FSIS regulations.” If so, then why hasn’t the policy been removed?

Though most of our hamburgers from here on out will not contain heart or tongue meat because of the dependency most companies have on other cuts of meat, the prospect may still seem concerning to many consumers. Heart and tongue meat are not dangerous and, in some cultures, are considered delicacies, but it still raises questions of food safety when consumers aren’t entirely sure what the ingredients are in the meat they are buying.

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