Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ammonia, Beef, and Bacteria

The harder things get for newspapers, it seems, the more I love the New York Times. Yesterday's story by Michael Moss on a South Dakota company named Beef Processing Inc. was classic journalism.

Eight years ago (I guess that would be 2001), the U.S. Department of Agriculture endorsed BPI's big idea: injecting ammonia into its ground beef to kill E. coli and salmonella bacteria.

The Times makes it pretty clear that calling BPI's product "ground beef" is stretching that term pretty far: BPI's founder was "looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination." Why are the trimmings more susceptible? Because the trimming " 'typically includes most of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass' and contains 'larger microbiological populations.' " The outer surfaces of the carcass.... gee, I guess that would be the part where all mud and excrement accumulates on these CAFO-raised cattle.

The process used by BPI involves "liquefying the fat and extracting the protein from the trimmings in a centrifuge." The meat is then "sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed..." In my opinion, calling this liquid meat would in no way fit with the assumptions of consumers.

The liquid finally becomes "a mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips, ...used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide...." Yum, how's that for a menu description? A "mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips."

This Shit (Literally) Is Everywhere

Back in 2001, when the USDA first proclaimed the method effective, BPI was exempted from routine testing of its meat. The Times tells us, BPI's ground beef is now a "mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone."

And that would all be well and good, if distasteful, BUT -- the meat is not free of pathogens. The school lunch program folks have been testing the meat even though they didn't have to, and found E. coli three times and salmonella 48 times, "including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated."

But it wasn't until the Times presented the school lunch program results to USDA that the Ag department revoked BPI's testing exemption. At this point, I need to point out that the school lunch program is part of USDA!

"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."

So Why Is It in School Lunches?

According to the Times, "Despite some misgivings, school lunch officials say they use Beef Products because its price is substantially lower than ordinary meat trimmings, saving about $1 million a year."

And: "School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed [despite qualms about its odor and flavor] to use the treated meat because it shaved about 3 cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef."

"In 2004, lunch officials increased the amount of Beef Products meat allowed in its hamburgers to 15 percent, from 10 percent, to increase savings."

Hiding the Ammonia

USDA approved BPI's process based on studies performed by BPI, without its own studies. Not everyone at USDA agreed with this. One 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.' "

What's more, "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."

Beef Products has faced the challenge of balancing safety with taste for years. Customers have complained of the ammonia smell on several occasions, assuming the meat was tainted because ammonia was not listed as an ingredient. But, ironically, the less smelly the meat is, the more dangerous it is.

"Pathogens died when enough ammonia was used to raise the alkalinity of the beef to a high level, company research found. But early on, school lunch officials and other customers complained about the taste and smell of the beef. Samples of the processed beef obtained by the Times revealed lower levels of alkalinity, suggesting less ammonia was used."

The less ammonia used (to improve smell and taste), the more likely the paste is to contain bacteria. Ammonia makes the meat more alkaline -- when it passes a pH of 8.5, it is inhospitable to bacteria. Samples tested by the Times, however, had a pH of only 7.75.

All This Has Consequences

Aside from all the fast food restaurants and schools already cited, the agribusiness giant Cargill is a major purchaser of BPI's beef paste. Cargilll was recently named in a lawsuit by Stephanie Smith, a young Minnesota woman who nearly died from and is now paralyzed because of an E. coli infection from a Cargill hamburger.

A recently launched Twin Cities food website, Simple Good and Tasty, recently ran an impressive interview with Smith's lawyer, Bill Marler. Check it out for even more outrage about the conditions of our food, and some bracing skepticism about some dearly held natural food beliefs, too.

Marler is well known for his aggressive pursuit of food safety cases. And, not surprisingly -- no one in his family ever eats ground beef.


William Marler said...

Hey, thanks for the "shout out."

By the way, I have three daughters.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Oh, my. Saw the headline and was busy so didn't read it. Thanks for posting this. (Some days I wish I could believe that everything is fine and The Liberal Media are just making this stuff up!)

Ms Sparrow said...

Most of my friends and family avoid beef. I succumb to an occasional weakness for a burger but I will have to thing long and hard before eating it again. It makes one queasy to thing about all those little kids eating that crap at MacDonalds and in school lunches! UGH!

Lee said...

Thanks a lot for the mention and link to Simple, good, and Tasty!