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Posted by on Jan 1, 2010 in Science & Technology | 2 comments

Questioning the Safety of Ammonia-Treated Ground Beef

In the clip above, from the feature documentary Food, Inc., Eldon R. Roth, the founder and owner of Beef Products, Inc. explains, “I’m really a mechanic. That’s really what I am. We design our own machinery.”

Roth gets that exactly right.

He has no science background but he does hold the patents for over two dozen pieces of equipment and methods used in beef processing. The Grist’s Tom Philpott describes the scene above as straight out of Chaplin’s Modern Times:

[A] vast network of steaming tubes, with people in protective gear and face masks wandering about fussing with dials. Evidently, scraps of cow flesh, swept up from slaugtterhouse floors and pulverized into a kind of paste, are moving through the tubes, subjected to a lashings of ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.The scene ends with those heavily protected workers carefully packing uniform flesh-colored blocks into boxes. “This is our finished product,” [Roth] declares. He then claims that the product ends up in 70 percent of hamburgers served in the U.S. “In five years we’ll be in 100 percent,” he predicts.

Unfortunately for all of us, that finished product, made up of fatty slaughterhouse trimmings once relegated to dog food and cooking oil, has been found to contain E. coli 3 times since 2005. Salmonella has been found 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated.

It turns out that the amount of ammonia it takes to kill the E. coli also makes the beef taste and smell really bad. So Beef Products, Inc. lowered the amount. And in an important investigative report for the NYTimes by Michael Moss, the safety of that method is being questioned.

Moss’s story exposes a significant rift between regulatory agencies. We learn that the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed BPI’s ammonia treatment and decided, in 2007 when routine testing of hamburger meat began, to exempt the company’s hamburger sold to the general public.

Meanwhile, in July the Agricultural Marketing Service, the U.S.D.A. division that buys food for school lunches, temporarily banned hamburger makers from using meat from a BPI facility in Kansas because of salmonella. That was the third suspension in three years. Throughout the facility’s meat remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers.

When the NYTimes confronted USDA regulators with the discrepancy, top officials said they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years:

In response, the agriculture department said it was revoking Beef Products’ exemption from routine testing and conducting a review of the company’s operations and research. The department said it was also reversing its policy for handling Beef Products during pathogen outbreaks. Since it was seen as pathogen-free, the processed beef was excluded from recalls, even when it was an ingredient in hamburgers found to be contaminated.

The Beef Products case reveals a schism between the main Department of Agriculture and its division that oversees the school lunch program, a divide that underscores the government’s faltering effort to make hamburger safe. The U.S.D.A. banned the sale of meat found to be contaminated with the O157:H7 strain of E. coli 15 years ago, after a deadly outbreak was traced to Jack in the Box restaurants. Meat tainted with salmonella is also a hazard. But while the school lunch program will not buy meat contaminated with salmonella, the agriculture department does not ban its sale to the general public.

BPI maintains that its beef products are safe and its ammonia process effective. But…

Within the U.S.D.A., the treated beef has been a source of friction for years. The department accepted the company’s own study as evidence that the treatment was effective. School lunch officials, who had some doubts about its effectiveness, required that Beef Products meat be tested, as they do all beef used by the program.

School lunch officials said that in some years Beef Products testing results were worse than many of the program’s two dozen other suppliers, which use traditional meat processing methods. From 2005 to 2009, Beef Products had a rate of 36 positive results for salmonella per 1,000 tests, compared to a rate of nine positive results per 1,000 tests for the other suppliers, according to statistics from the program. Beef Products said its testing regime was more likely to detect contamination.

BPI’s testing may be better. If so, it should be used on all meat. And the test should be administered by a non-biased party other than the company.

Even as the school lunch program is finding tainted meat, it continues to buy it, “Despite some misgivings…because its price is substantially lower than ordinary meat trimmings, saving about $1 million a year.” And in 2004, lunch officials increased the amount of Beef Products meat allowed in its hamburgers to 15 percent, from 10 percent, to increase savings.

Don’t look for the ammonia used in BPI’s mashlike meat substance to be listed in the ingredients on the package because:

Federal officials agreed to the company’s request that the ammonia be classified as a “processing agent” and not an ingredient that would be listed on labels.

Even as…

[USDA] microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef “pink slime” in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

The anti-labelers won out for, of all the pathetic reasons, “the government had just decided against requiring another company to list a chemical used in treating poultry.”

It’s important to read the NYTimes piece in full. You should also check out the documentary Food, Inc. available on iTunes and Netflix Watch Instantly.

This is not Michael Moss’s first outstanding piece of investigative reporting on the beef industry. You may want to go back and read his October 3 piece, E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection, which opens with the hamburger poisoning of a 22-year-old dance. That piece examines Cargill, “whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country’s largest private company.”