Ground beef is a staple in many American homes, but some consumers might have recently started to question their meal choices.

That's because "Meatingplace" magazine reported that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) had overturned a 40-year-old policy that prohibited beef heart and beef tongue meat from being added to ground beef. The article prompted a flurry of headlines about what might be in your next hamburger.

The sensationalist coverage was overblown, it turns out. According to the FSIS, beef heart and beef tongue meat have always been permitted in ground beef, along with other organ meats, despite a 1981 published policy memo (#027) that states otherwise (PDF).

And, says the North American Meat Institute, few, if any, beef packagers include beef heart or beef tongue meat in their ground beef.

Why the Panic About Beef Heart?

According to the FSIS, there has been no change in policy: In addition to meat and fat trimmings, ground beef can be made from other components, such as meat from the esophagus, diaphragm, and cheek, as well as heart and tongue—aka “offal.” FSIS spokesman Aaron Lavallee says this has been the case for decades.

So why the recent fuss?

The FSIS seems to have clarified the meaning behind the 1981 policy memo in response to a question posed on its website asking whether beef heart meat is allowed in ground beef. This memo stated: “Heart meat and tongue meat have never been considered as beef or permitted to be declared as beef on labels and are not expected ingredients in chopped beef, ground beef or hamburger.”

However, Lavallee says that this memo has never been law and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. “We know that the policy labeling book from 1982 was not accurate and it did not mesh with FSIS regulations,” he says. In short, Lavallee says, beef heart meat and tongue meat have been legal additions to ground beef this whole time.

Beef Heart and Beef Tongue Meat Are Safe

“There’s no safety risk in consuming heart and tongue meat,” says Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

“Meat” is the key word here. Beef heart meat is the muscle that’s been trimmed from the heart wall. “Beef heart” includes the meat and essentially everything else—the blood vessels, fat, and blood chambers. Beef tongue meat does not include the blood vessels or nerves. Such nonmeat parts are considered meat by-products and are not allowed in ground beef.

And beef tongue cannot be sold or added to ground beef at all if the tonsils are attached. In cattle that are infected, tonsil tissue could contain the agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease." (In the United States, BSE has been identified in only four cows. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the risk to human health from BSE in the United States is extremely low.”)

Will Your Burger Contain Heart or Tongue Meat?

Despite what the FSIS allows, your next burger probably won’t contain such squirm-inducing organs anyway.

“All of our packers, who supply about 95 percent of the country’s red meat, say they’re not using heart or tongue meat,” says Janet M. Riley, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute. She doesn’t suspect they’ll start using that meat now, because chain and fast food restaurants have come to rely on the consistency of the product.

However, should a packer decide to use heart or tongue meat in its ground beef, it's not required to list it on the label, according to FSIS regulations. “That's a transparency issue,” says Halloran. “Some people don’t want to eat offal. If ground beef contains beef cheek meat, the FSIS requires it be listed on the label. It should be the same for heart and tongue meat. ”

“Nose-to-tail” eating has been a thing for years now, both for culinary and sustainability reasons. But organ meats don't appeal to everyone.

If you want to make sure that the package of ground beef you see in your supermarket doesn’t contain heart or tongue, buy ground chuck, round, or sirloin instead of packages labeled ground beef or hamburger. According to the FSIS, if a cut of beef is in the meat’s name, what’s in the package has to come only from that cut.