When Ronald Reagan was asking for your vote in 1980, he did not tell you that, if elected, he would put more powdered bone in your hot dogs, sausages, bologna and assorted luncheon meats. But he did say he would get the government off the meat industry’s back. In 1982 that assurance means that consumers will soon be buying processed meat products without being told on the package that they contain crushed bone ingredients.
This decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a major victory for the American Meat Institute and other meat industry lobbyists. For nearly a decade the industry has been trying to receive USDA approval to use mechanical deboning equipment that opposing consumer groups believed would lead to adulterated and misbranded meat products. The industry’s demands were blocked by the courts and by labeling standards of Carter’s Department of Agriculture. This time, under Reagan and Agriculture Secretary John Block, they prevailed.
Unless the courts overturn this decision—and there is a suit filed by consumer organizations already—here is what meat processors will be doing: Bones with some meat still attached will be ground up and the pulverized mix forced through sieves at high pressure. Very small bone fragments along with bone marrow, cartilage and other non-food components of animal carcasses would pass through the sieves and eventually end up on your dinner table.
Some people may like this diversity. Others—no doubt a majority—would like some advance warning called labeling. The Carter administration, four years ago, required some red alert language on the meat package before such materials could be poured into your hot dogs.
One of the items on the label was the phrase “Contains up to X percent powdered bone.” This disclosure was repugnant to the meat processing companies and most kept their mechanical deboning equipment idle until a more permissive day. That day came July 29, 1982, when the USDA repealed the Carter labeling rules, in particular deleting the requirement that consumers be informed of the amount of powdered bone. Instead, the companies have to declare the calcium content as part of a nutrition label, if the product bears a nutrition label.
Rodney Leonard, a former assistant secretary of agriculture who is now a consumer advocate, says that “bone is as much like calcium as tobacco is like protein.” He warned that last month “the Food and Drug Administration restricted the use of bone powder as a diet supplement because of high lead content in bone. FDA said exposure of infants and children to higher lead content is a health hazard. Every marketing study of preserved meat products indicates that children and young people, and lower-income families, are primary consumers of hot dogs and bologna.”
Leonard’s Community Nutrition Institute is one of the four consumer groups that have sued Reagan’s USDA in federal court, charging that the department’s action “would cause meat products to be both misbranded and adulterated in violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.” Their legal complaint refers to the “potential health hazards posed by the concealment of the fact that such products contain powdered bone.” Consumers will be deceived and will be forced to pay higher prices for lower-quality products, they contend.
Meanwhile, some food scientists deep inside the Department of Agriculture privately were very worried. One scientist rejected the argument that there was nutritional value to connective tissue called “proline.” People who cannot tolerate nucleic acid will not find the nucleic acid in powdered bone very comforting.
Food scientists also question studies done on bone particles that conclude there is no toxic accumulation to be concerned about. What about the “worst case” animals? one of them asked. He was referring to 15-yearold dairy cattle, which accumulate heavy metals and other toxic substances, and not to two-year-old beef cattle.
If you want to turn back the drive for powdered bone in your hot dogs, try writing your senators or President Reagan. For example: “Dear President Reagan: With all the problems that you have to deal with, why are you creating a new one by letting the meat industry put unlabeled crushed bone in our hot dogs and luncheon meats that lower the quality of our meat and increase health hazards—especially to children?”
For more information about the ground-up bone issue, write to the Community Nutrition Institute, 1146 19th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. You can win this, if you register your revulsion with the White House and the Congress. They do not want you to remember in November.