A few weeks ago there’s was another E coli outbreak, this time in beef treated with ammonia (it is treated with ammonia in an attempt to kill bacteria). [1] Anhydrous ammonia is the same chemical commonly found in floor cleaners, and can comprise up to 15% of many fast-food burgers, and in the ground beef that goes to the U.S. school lunch program.

On the last day of 2009 The New York Times (NYT) published a report on the lack of efficacy of ammonia treatment in killing salmonella and E. coli in beef from South Dakota’s Beef Products, Inc. (BPI). [2] According to BPI’s website they are the largest processor of beef (i.e. the largest cow slaughtering company) in the country, and their ammoniated product is used in frozen hamburger, taco meats, low-fat hot dogs, beef-stick snacks, and is sold to major fast food chains. [3]

BPI uses low-grade beef trimmings (notoriously high in microbial pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, Lysteria, and Staph.), spins off the fat, then pumps the beef full of ammonia in an attempt to kill the pathogens that multiplied during the fat removal process. But not all of the pathogens are reduced and some might even be increased. [3]

Joe Windish described, in themoderatevoice.com blog, the process leading to burger-making in the slaughterhouse as seen in the feature documentary Food, Inc.:

“[It’s 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 slaughterhouse floors and pulverized into a kind of paste, are moving through the tubes, subjected to splashings 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,’ [Eldon R. Roth, the founder and owner of BPI declares.” [4] Roth 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,” Roth predicts.

The ammonia used in BPI’s mashlike meat substance is not listed in the ingredients on the package as federal officials agreed to the company’s request that the ammonia be classified as a “processing agent” and not as an ingredient that would need to be listed on labels. [4]

It ‘s also a common slaughterhouse practice to gas ground beef with carbon monoxide in order to keep the flesh red, potentially even for weeks after it potentially spoils, possibly misleading consumers into buying “bad” meat (note: the term “bad meat” is an oxymoron, just like the term “humane meat”; meat is by definition "bad", and it is ludicrous to call the meat from slaughtered cows "humane beef"). As with the ammonia-treated product, the label on the package makes no mention that the meat has been gassed with carbon monoxide.[4]

Windish also writes in his blog that “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.”

Gerald Zirnstein, USDA microbiologist, 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.”[2]

Apparently, as the amount of ammonia it takes to kill the germs that cause food poisoning makes the beef taste and smell really bad, BPI, who pioneered the ammonia treatment, lowered the amount of ammonia used. [4]

In the investigative report for the NYT by Michael Moss, he states that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) endorses BPI’s ammonia treatment. [2] The USDA believed in it so much that in 2007 when routine testing of hamburger meat began, they decided to exempt the company’s hamburger sold to the general public from testing.

This past July, the Agricultural Marketing Service – the USDA division that buys food for school lunches - temporarily banned hamburger makers from using meat from a BPI facility in Kansas because of salmonella. This was the third suspension in three years, however, the facility’s meat remained approved by the USDA for other customers. [2]

Even though the school lunch program finds tainted meat from time to time, it continues to buy it, “Despite some misgivings…because its price is substantially lower than ordinary meat trimmings, saving about $1 million a year.” In addition, in 2004, school lunch officials increased the amount of BPI meat allowed in its hamburgers to 15 percent, from 10 percent, to increase savings. [4]

Despite massive recalls, disease outbreaks and scares over mad cow disease, US demand for beef has remained relatively constant. [1] "We tend to trust, more than any country in the world, the (government) food inspections," said Abner Womack, senior economist at the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. [1]

More on the convoluted bureaucracy and explanation from the USDA in a future blog.

Thanks for reading.

Mark Fergusson