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.
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.