Natural Health Remedies | Jon Barron's Blog

Date: 01/09/2010    Written by: Jon Barron

Retailers Defend Ammonia Treated Beef

Ammonia Treated Beef

Sometimes a story breaks that's so outrageous it's hard to know where to begin telling it. In this case, the story involves beef treated with ammonia. Apparently, a company called Beef Products, Inc., has been distributing the stuff for eight years. It shows up widely in fast-food hamburgers, in school lunches, and in supermarket ground beef. Nobody had been "beefing" about the meat until the New York Times broke a story last week claiming that government and industry records revealed dozens of incidents of E. coli and salmonella contamination.

But before even going to the contamination issue, which the press went all agog about, what about the presence of ammonia in beef? How did the USDA come to approve treating food with a substance that's corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs -- that literally can eat a hole through the gut?

It seems that back in 2000 or so, the executives at Beef Products Inc. felt frustrated that they couldn't use the fatty waste in the beef for anything except pet food and cooking oil, since fat is so vulnerable to bacterial contamination and wouldn't pass inspection. But then, someone at the company had a money-making brainstorm -- if the fatty matter could be treated with large-amounts of ammonia, perhaps the contaminants would die and then the waste could be ground into a paste, added to hamburg, and sold for a far higher price. And sure enough, tests showed that the ammonia did seem to kill off E. coli and salmonella, and the company started marketing its ammonia-treated products far and wide. The FDA and USDA approved, and in fact, granted an exemption to Beef Products, Inc. so that the ammonia-infused ground beef coming out of that company didn't have to go through regular inspections. Now, ammonia-treated beef ends up in 70 percent of all hamburger sold in the US, including meat sold at Burger King, McDonalds, through the school lunch program, and in numerous supermarket chains.

And so we come to the first two questions evoked by the scenario: what's the impact of eating ammonia (concerns about eating beef aside), and how can the USDA justify suspending inspections of any meat product? As for the ammonia issue, the company says in its literature, "It is naturally present in all proteins. Ammonia is essential for life…" But according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry,

  • Ammonia is highly irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. Swelling and narrowing of the throat and bronchi, coughing, and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs can occur.
  • Ammonia causes rapid onset of a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat, accompanied by lacrimation, rhinorrhea, and coughing. Upper airway swelling and pulmonary edema may lead to airway obstruction.
  • Prolonged skin contact (more than a few minutes) can cause pain and corrosive injury.

Apparently, no independent tests were run to assess safety risk before the product got the stamp of approval. Instead, the USDA relied on assurances from Beef Products, Inc., that they had run the stuff through testing and found it to be perfectly safe. A former USDA microbiologist, Carl S. Custer, called the processed beef "pink slime" 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." Then again, the FDA also allows the meat industry to dose its products with carbon monoxide to keep them looking nice and pink -- even if a bit slimy -- for an extra 20 days of shelf life. When you think about it, what's a little ammonia added to the mix?

According to the company, the process of converting fatty waste to edible beef, "increases the naturally occurring levels of ammonium hydroxide a slight amount in order to assist in eliminating any harmful bacteria that could potentially be present in meats." However, the "slight amount" apparently was enough to lend the beef hitting the shelves a strong smell of ammonia -- strong enough that numerous customers complained about the stink. Those customers were unaware that ammonia had been used in processing, and yet, the smell came through strong enough to indicate unhealthy levels of alkalinity.

In any event, the company decided to lower the ammonia content in order to allay customer concerns. And that brings us to the current situation, because although lowering the ammonia levels eliminated the stinky beef syndrome, it simultaneously failed to kill all the pathogens. School lunch officials kept testing the meat although the USDA didn't require it, and found that in the years 2005 to 2009, Beef Products tested positive for salmonella 36 times per 1,000 tests, compared to only nine positive tests per 1,000 for other suppliers, including two contaminated 27,000 pound batches found this past August. Three instances of E. coli contamination also were found. The contaminated batches were disposed of before being served

The conversion of fatty waste into marketable meat has led to fat profits estimated at about $440 million annually for Beef Products Inc. And, the payoff extends to customers like the School Lunch Program, which says, "[The School Lunch program will continue to use BPI beef] despite some misgivings…because its price is substantially lower than ordinary meat trimmings, saving about $1 million a year." Likewise, other consumers of BPI products seem unmoved by the New York Times report: McDonald's, Burger King, and Cargill all said they'll continue to use the meat, pointing to the fact that no cases of illness have been directly tied to BPI products so far. Of course, had the School Lunch Program been a bit less vigilant in its testing, lots of kids would have been sickened and the situation would look quite different.

But Americans love their beef and it seems that short of an outbreak of disease, they'll keep buying it. Abner Womack, a senior economist at the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri points out that "U.S. demand for beef has remained relatively constant even amid massive recalls, disease outbreaks and scares over mad cow disease. We tend to trust, more than any country in the world, the (government) food inspections." He failed to mention the fact that BPI products aren't subject to those inspections.

There's an old saying that goes, "There are two things you never want to watch: the making of sausage and the making of legislation." Maybe we should now add a third -- ground beef.


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    Submitted by Alex on
    January 25, 2010 - 1:48am

    This is about ground beef and ammonia in hamburgers. Must read

    Submitted by April on
    January 30, 2010 - 2:01pm

    Hello all! It is sad what is being done to our food, I am very blessed to have moose and elk for meat, although it may be contaminated by pollution too. I am also concerned about what vegetables are treated with, they are apparently all irradiated now, I don't like that idea! I will continue to grow my garden in the summer, not much choice in the winter though.

    Submitted by DAVID J. SIEGEL on
    January 26, 2010 - 2:39pm


    DAVE S.

    Submitted by Debbie Warren on
    July 24, 2010 - 4:35am

    I am very concerned about the use of ammonia in beef. After all, it is a very caustic chemical and can do serious damage. My concern arises from grabbing my first fast food burger in a long time in late March 2010 at a local (Plano, TX) Whataburger. The next day I had severe food poisoning symptoms with one added difference: a very strong release of ammonia fumes with the dreaded diarrhea. The fumes were so bad that my eyes, nose and throat stung and I had to hold my breath until I could leave the room. My eyes and nose stung for hours afterward. I did not make the connection with the burger until yesterday when the same symptoms recurred after having another Whataburger the evening before. My first Whataburger (or any fast food burger for that matter) in nearly 4 months and once again the release of ammonia fumes with the diarrhea and other food poisoning symptoms.

    I'm convinced it is either the ammonia used in the beef or a by-product of a bacterial or other pathogen. My vote is that it's the ammonia.

    I'm already permanently ill from Peter Pan Peanut Butter and the FDA neglect/malfeasance that led to it. Even though the FDA knew about the contamination and the filthy ConAgra factory in late 2004; they did NOTHING about it and even when they confirmed the Salmonella and resulting illnesses in Aug 2006...they did not inform the public until Feb 2007. While people like me were very ill and some died...and developed Reiter's syndrome from it; ConAgra and the FDA acted criminally (in my opinion) in their refusal to act upon it. Whether it is a pathogen or an added chemical that makes us ill, they refuse to inform the public. More wasted tax dollars and destruction of innocent lives.

    Submitted by Guggie Daly on
    January 9, 2010 - 9:05am

    Ergh my stomach lurched. Sad thing is, although I don't eat at fast food joints frequently, I'm sure that at some point in that time period I must have snatched a hamburger on vacation or in a hurry. Ergh ergh ergh.

    Submitted by Henry Schrieber on
    January 10, 2010 - 4:56am

    Why do we have the FDA if it does not do i'ts job? I thought that the FDA was supposed to protect us form the fat bunch of criminals? (not to disparage the oldest profession) Fire the whole bunch.

    Submitted by Janet on
    January 25, 2010 - 1:13am

    I stopped eating beef a few years ago. I did notice that it didn't taste quite right when I used to eat it. I wonder if this ammonia could be a main reason that so many people have problems with ulcers and acid reflux, in addition to possibly having a H-pylori infection. Of course, this stuff was probably not tested before it was put into beef. Who knows what else they are putting it in. Those involved are really sick in the head. What ever happened to being loving and appreciative of our food? Even the movie Avatar shows us how irreverent we are to our food and all of nature.

    Submitted by KERRY SEARLE on
    June 11, 2010 - 10:30am

    I contacted Carl's Jr. about this. This is their response as 6/10/10 Wednesday.:
    ""Thank you for your inquiry regarding the use of ammonia in our beef products. Currently, none of our burger patties contain the ammonia added product in which your provided article is referring to. I just checked with our QA department and the use of this product is actually prohibited in our beef patties. I hope this helps you in you dining decisions."" So some companies are aware of it and avoid it. OK, this is a health food site. Kudos for Carl's Jr. for at least caring enough to keep ammonia out of my favorite burger.

    Submitted by Mary Lokken on
    January 26, 2010 - 2:30am

    I am glad you covered this ammonia in the meat issue. I went to the BPI web site and they made it sound like it's not a big deal and is safe. When I read this, I wanted to write someone to validate my thoughts on this and you did just that.

    Submitted by mary wheat on
    January 24, 2010 - 10:52pm

    I am so glad I am a veggie. But my son does eat a burger occasionally,does this disgraceful state of affairs apply to the United Kingdom ? Muccy Donalds etc.?

    Submitted by Randy Karp on
    January 24, 2010 - 2:16am

    Up to 6 different hormones including steroids, antibiotics, carbon monoxide spray often used to keep meat looking red after its spoiled, and now ammonia to permit at least one grower to detox toxified fat. Packing plants may also sell meat with carcass laden tumors they're permited to simply remove. Reminds me of commercials from pharmaceutical companies. Side effects may include toxic contamination, antibacterial resistance, hormone imbalance, and more .
    God bless these animals, and our children, who eat them.

    Submitted by selarkin on
    January 25, 2010 - 3:04am

    I am so tired of our rights and liberties being bought the detriment of the United States citizens.

    Submitted by David Bloxham on
    July 24, 2011 - 2:26pm

    most of your postings were a year or more ago but her's my take on the subject anyway:
    I am concerned about this subject after recently becoming aware of it, and my concern lies at multiple levels.
    Firstly, the cloaking and deception campaign put on by BPI and their customers. Secondly, how they have been using only the poorest, lowest quality and simply disgusting parts of the slaughter in our food, disguised as meat. "Trimmings" I will assume unclude lips, eyes, ears, penises, female reproductive parts, sinew, lower leg and tail, but I wonder about the brains? I don't know but i do know that bovine brains carry mad cow disease as well. This is the "meat" produced at BPI??
    The only reason for the need to add ammonia is because these "trash" parts are normally considered inedible. Feed lot cows are awash in fecal filth of their own, due to
    Their feedlot practices. Legs penises and lips are all fully contaminated there. To make a profit, today they are attempting to Make a silk purse from a Cow's ear, all too literally. I say throw these parts to the dogs as we should, and used to do. In the 1950s about 55% of the animal was considered edible, today they say it's over 80%. simply disgusting.

    My third concern is the ammonia itself. Personally, I had been wondering why, after eating a McDonald's burger any time in the last few years, I would feel wheezy and cough for a few minutes. Why do I
    Not have these symptoms occur after a in and out or carl's jr. Meal? The mystery is solved.
    I feel that this mystery had been solved.

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