What is ‘adulterated’ meat?

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In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology and issues we’re attempting to do the same.

If it seems food safety issues are on the rise, that’s because they are. About 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At any given time the FDA is responsible for watching over some 167,000 domestic food facilities or farms, and another 421,000 facilities or farms outside the United States, according to FDA officials. But there are only about 1,100 inspectors to oversee these facilities, officials told CNN in 2012.

There is a third party audit system, where farms or facilities hire auditors to inspect their premises and provide scores. But some say the audit system is full of conflicts of interest. For instance, shortly before Jensen Farms in Colorado caused a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people, a private inspection company’s auditor gave them a “superior” grade, even after noting that they had no anti-microbial solution in place to clean their cantaloupes.

Sometimes, food slips through the cracks and makes it to the consumer marketplace, as in the recent case of the 8.7 million pounds of meat from Rancho Feeding Corporation (and their associated products like Hot Pockets) that were recalled due to “adulteration.” Here’s what that means.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s undercover research for his novel, “The Jungle,” exposed the unsanitary conditions of the then-unregulated American meatpacking industry. President Theodore Roosevelt, suspicious of Sinclair’s supposedly socialist leanings, commissioned a report from labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds, who echoed much of Sinclair’s findings.

Under Roosevelt’s authority, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 was enacted alongside the Pure Food and Drug Act, giving the USDA jurisdiction over inspection of livestock before and after slaughter, setting sanitary standards for slaughter and processing facilities and allowing routine inspections of the operations by federal inspection. In 1967, the Wholesome Meat Act required these inspections to take place on the state level as well.

A key section of the FMIA lays out the guidelines for what meat “adulteration” entails, and they fall roughly along two lines: adulteration for economic gain, and adulteration that poses a threat to public safety.

First up, economic skullduggery. The FMIA states that food is considered to be adulterated: “if any valuable constituent has been in whole or in part omitted or abstracted therefrom; or if any substance has been substituted, wholly or in part therefor; or if damage or inferiority has been concealed in any manner.” This essentially says that truth in advertising is essential; cheap substitutions without disclosure aren’t just shady business — they’re actually illegal.

Secondly, as in the case of the bungled beef that made its way into the nation’s Hot Pockets supply, the FMIA addresses cases when public safety is potentially at stake. In short, if products contain ingredients that are not considered safe for consumption (certain pesticides, specific food colorings or additives), are made with “filthy, putrid, or decomposed substances,” have been prepared, packed, or held in a location where they might be “contaminated with filth,” are subjected to unapproved radiation or are made from animals that died from causes other than slaughter, they’re considered to be adulterated.

In the case of the Rancho Feeding Corporation recall, the 8.7 million pounds of head, testicles (here called “mountain oysters”), lips, blood, feet, stomach, tail and other beef parts that made it into the food system (without being properly inspected) came from diseased and otherwise “unsound” animals that would render them “unwholesome” and unsafe for human consumption. The recall notice from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service indicates a “reasonable probability” that consumption could result in “serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

Please attempt to enjoy your lunch.

Further reading:

Here is a breakdown of each of the government agencies in charge of meat safety and communicating said info to the public:


Stands for: Food Safety and Inspection Service

Food Safety Role:: FSIS is the public health agency in the USDA in charge of making sure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat (excluding game meats), poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. This is accomplished several ways.

– Inspections: FSIS inspectors inspect animal carcasses before and after slaughter to ensure that no diseases are present, take samples for inspection, monitor the safety of animal feed and medications and enforce regulations such as temperature control, trimming and sanitation procedures.

At egg production facilities, FSIS agents inspect all egg products, with and without added ingredients, including whole eggs, whites, yolks, and various blends — with or without non-egg ingredients — that are processed and pasteurized. FDA, rather than FSIS is responsible for the inspection of egg substitutes, imitation eggs, and similar products.

– Recalls: When FSIS determines that a food item poses a risk to the public, the agency forms a committee to determine if a recall is needed, and collaborates with producers to make sure that the product is contained, and that the public has received adequate warning via the media and the FSIS website. If a risk is posed, but it is determined that a recall is not needed, FSIS will issue a public health alert.

– Labeling: FSIS develops and provides labeling guidance, policies and inspection methods in order to protect consumers from misbranded and economically adulterated meat, poultry, and egg products. This is to ensure that all labels contain accurate, truthful information.


Stands for: United States Department of Agriculture

Food Safety Role: The USDA has primary responsibility for the safety of meat, poultry and certain egg products. The agency’s authority is regulated by: the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act.

The agency is also responsible for inspecting all meat, poultry and egg products sold in interstate commerce, and re-inspecting imported meat, poultry and egg products to makes sure they meet United States safety standards. The USDA inspects eggs in processing plants before and after they are broken for further processing. FSIS falls under the governance of the USDA.

The USDA is the leader in setting the federal policies that determine national standards for food safety, and has also maintained the Meat and Poultry Hotline (888-674-6854) since 1985. The agency introduced AskKaren.gov in 2004, and mobile Ask Karen on 2011 and claims the combined sites now have a nearly 99 percent self-service rate, meaning that nearly all users are able to find the answers to their questions almost immediately.


Stands for: Food and Drug Administration

Food Safety Role: The FDA regulates all food not overseen by the USDA, which inspects poultry, meat and processed egg products. The FDA has a multi-faceted role in the food safety chain, which can be broken down like this:

– Food defense: The FDA works with other governmental agencies and private businesses to prevent and reduce the risk of malicious attacks on the food system from terrorists, criminals, counterfeiters and others who would seek to harm the public. The FDA provides a tool for private businesses to use to build their own defense plan.

– Recalls: The FDA keeps the public apprised of voluntary recalls by food companies, and recently gained the authority to issue mandatory recalls of foods that have a “reasonable probability” of being adulterated or misbranded and could cause serious illness or death to humans or animals.

– Emergencies: In times of emergencies and weather crises like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or power outages, the FDA and CDC provide information and guidelines for food storage and disposal.

– Outbreaks: The Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (A different CORE than the aforementioned CDC FoodCORE) network manages outbreak response, as well as monitoring activities after an illness has been identified. It was designed to streamline efforts across the agency, and develop strategies to prevent and identify future threats to the food system.

– Labeling: The FDA is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries, and is overseen by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

Consumer resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Food and Drug Administration’s Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts

FDA Food Safety


United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Education



Salmonella outbreak linked to tainted chicken

Food poisoning: What you need to know

More on food poisoning from CNN Health and all food-borne illness coverage on Eatocracy

Additional reporting by Ashley Hayes, CNN Health

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