Chill Out, Beef Heart Has Been Allowed in Burgers for Decades

Confusion over existing USDA standards recently led to a spate of headlines proclaiming that beef heart would soon make an appearance in American ground beef. We regret to inform you that it may have been there all along.
February 8, 2017, 11:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Michael Stern

You may have read that due to a recent policy change at the United States Department of Agriculture, American ground beef may soon contain beef heart. In one example of the breathless coverage this supposed development earned, Consumerist's headline proclaimed: "Thanks To Policy Change, Your Ground Beef May Include More Heart Than You Think."

That sounds dire indeed. But don't drop and slowly back away from your burger just yet, because it may already contain beef heart. It turns out that there is no new regulation; the headlines are the product of confusion over existing USDA standards.


The origin of the story seems to stem from July of last year, when someone asked the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) whether beef heart is permitted in ground beef.

The short answer: yes, and it has been for years.

"[Beef heart] is included in the definition of meat in 9 CFR 301.2 and there is no limitation on the use of beef heart in the standards of identity for chopped beef, ground beef, or hamburger," wrote the FSIS in response to the question. "Therefore, beef heart can be used in unlimited quantities and declared as 'beef' on the label."

Fortune notes that these rules are based on the definition of meat set forth by Congress in the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906.

Now, any grade-schooler should be able to reassure you that the heart, much like the tenderloin, is a muscle. But only certain parts of the heart—namely, the muscly meat parts—are allowed in ground beef. Per the FSIS, exempted from ground beef is "any portion of the heart cap," which includes blood vessels, pockets of fat, and the ventricles of the heart itself.

"There is no new allowance, policy, update, or rule," Aaron Lavallee, a spokesperson for FSIS, told MUNCHIES.

Despite the fact that beef heart has long been permitted in ground beef, however, very few ground beef producers include it in their mix.

The president of the North American Meat Institute, Barry Carpenter, issued a statement in response to the false reports about the supposed policy change.

"While USDA's recent clarification makes clear that muscle in the heart is meat and could be used in meat products, it is rarely used," Carpenter wrote. "Many ground beef products like hamburgers for restaurants are made according to specifications from customers and to our knowledge, these private specifications included in contracts between customers and suppliers do not include heart meat. In fact, we have checked with our membership who produce 95 percent of the meat supply and no company has indicated that they are using heart meat in their ground beef."

So breathe easy. But if you're eating ground beef in the first place, a little bit of heart, loaded with vitamin B-12 and iron, shouldn't be a turnoff.