[Homestead] Do You Really Want To Eat This?
lurine at com-pair.net
Fri Jan 1 03:01:42 EST 2010
>From The NY Times
December 31, 2009
Company's Record on Beef Treatment Questioned
By MICHAEL MOSS
Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially
deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South
Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.
The company, Beef Products Inc., had been 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, but a study
commissioned by the company showed that the ammonia process would kill E.
coli as well as salmonella.
Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed the
company's ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli "to an
undetectable level." They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the
department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the
general public, they exempted Beef Products.
With the U.S.D.A.'s stamp of approval, the company's processed beef has
become 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.
But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that
in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens
have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by
the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since
2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including
back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were
found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms
In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers
from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of
salmonella the third suspension in three years, records show. Yet the
facility remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers.
Presented by The Times with the school lunch test results, top department
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
Even so, E. coli outbreaks nationwide have increased in recent years. And
this summer, two outbreaks of particularly virulent strains of salmonella in
hamburger prompted large recalls of ground beef across several states.
Although no outbreak has been tied to Beef Products, officials said they
would thoroughly scrutinize any future industry innovations for fighting
contamination "to ensure that they are scientifically sound and protect
public health," and that they were examining the government's overall meat
The founder and owner of Beef Products, Eldon N. Roth, declined requests for
interviews or access to the company's production facilities. Responding to
written questions, Beef Products said it had a deep commitment to hamburger
safety and was continually refining its operation to provide the safest
product possible. "B.P.I.'s track record demonstrates the progress B.P.I.
has made compared to the industry norm," the company said. "Like any
responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect."
Beef Products maintains that its ammonia process remains effective. It said
it tests samples of each batch it ships to customers and has found E. coli
in only 0.06 percent of the samples this year.
The company says its processed beef, a mashlike substance frozen into blocks
or chips, is used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide. But it has
remained little known outside industry and government circles. 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.
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.
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.
Another snapshot of processed beef's performance emerges from confidential
records of tests in 2007 by the food giant Cargill. In the preceding year
and a half, Cargill, which used more than 50 vendors, suspended three
facilities for excessive salmonella; two were Beef Products plants, records
Since introducing the treated meat, Beef Products has faced the challenge of
balancing safety with taste, records and interviews show.
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.
Beef Products acknowledged lowering the alkalinity, and the U.S.D.A. said it
had determined that "at least some of B.P.I.'s product was no longer
receiving the full lethality treatment."
Beef Products said it had submitted new research to the agriculture
department showing that its treatment remained effective with lower
alkalinity. Agriculture officials said Beef Products' latest study is under
A Safety Solution
Headstrong and self-assured, Eldon N. Roth had the good fortune of being in
the right place at the right time.
Mr. Roth spent the 1990s looking to give Beef Products a competitive edge by
turning fatty slaughterhouse trimmings into usable lean beef.
Mr. Roth and others in the industry had discovered that liquefying the fat
and extracting the protein from the trimmings in a centrifuge resulted in a
lean product that was desirable to hamburger-makers.
The greater challenge was eliminating E. coli and salmonella, which are more
prevalent in fatty trimmings than in higher grades of beef. According to a
2003 study financed by Beef Products, the trimmings "typically includes most
of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass" and contains "larger
microbiological populations." Beef Products said it also used trimmings from
inside cuts of meat.
Mr. Roth was well suited to tackle the problem, friends say. Though lacking
a science background, he had a knack for machinery and obtained patents for
over two dozen pieces of equipment and methods used in processing beef.
"He looked and looked at stuff and always wondered, why can't it be done
this way?" said Dr. David M. Theno, a food safety consultant and friend of
Mr. Roth. "He is like a lot of inventors. Not everyone sees Eldon's vision."
One of Mr. Roth's early trials involved running electricity through the
trimmings to kill bacteria, Dr. Theno and others said. Mr. Roth eventually
settled on ammonia, which had been shown to suppress spoilage. Meat is sent
through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and
compressed all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.
The treated beef landed in Washington in 2001, when federal officials were
searching for ways to eliminate E. coli. Beef Products already had one study
showing its treatment would do that; another company-sponsored study by an
Iowa State University professor that was published in a professional journal
seconded that finding.
Mr. Roth asserted that his product would kill pathogens in untreated meat
when it was used as an ingredient in ground beef raising the prospect of a
risk-free burger. "Given the technology, we firmly believe that the two
pathogens of major concern in raw ground beef E. coli O157:H7 and
salmonella are on the verge of elimination," Mr. Roth wrote to the
The Food and Drug Administration signed off on the use of ammonia,
concluding it was safe when used as a processing agent in foods. This year,
a top official with the U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service said,
"It eliminates E. coli to the same degree as if you cooked the product."
Carl S. Custer, a former U.S.D.A. microbiologist, said he and other
scientists were concerned that the department had approved the treated beef
for sale without obtaining independent validation of the potential safety
risk. Another department 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."
One of the toughest hurdles for Beef Products was the Agricultural Marketing
Service, the U.S.D.A. division that buys food for school lunches. Officials
cited complaints about the odor, and wrote in a 2002 memorandum that they
had "to determine if the addition of ammonia to the product is in the best
interest to A.M.S. from a quality standpoint."
"It is our contention," the memo added, "that product should be labeled
Represented by Dennis R. Johnson, a top lawyer and lobbyist for the meat
industry, Beef Products prevailed on the question of whether ammonia should
be listed as an ingredient, arguing that the government had just decided
against requiring another company to list a chemical used in treating
School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed to use the treated meat
because it shaved about 3 cents off the cost of making a pound of ground
beef."Several packers have unofficially raised concern regarding the use of
the product since the perception of quality is inferior," the 2002 memo
said. "But will use product to obtain lower bid."
In 2004, lunch officials increased the amount of Beef Products meat allowed
in its hamburgers to 15 percent, from 10 percent, to increase savings. In a
taste test at the time, some school children favored burgers with higher
amounts of processed beef.
Beef Products does not disclose its earnings, but its reported production of
seven million pounds a week would generate about $440 million in annual
revenue, according to industry records.
Dr. Theno, the food safety consultant, applauds Mr. Roth for figuring out
how to convert high-fat trimmings "with no functional value."
"There were some issues with that," Dr. Theno said. "But he, and God bless
him, amassed a tidy fortune for it."
As sales took off, Mr. Roth started offering a buy-back guarantee: If any of
the most virulent E. coli was found in ground beef containing Beef Products
meat, the company would buy the tainted meat.
This was based on Mr. Roth's initial prediction that his treated beef could
kill E. coli in any meat it was mixed with. The company acknowledges that
its subsequent study found no evidence to back that up, although it says it
is now trying with an enhanced treatment. The guarantee remains on the
company Web site: "Contact a B.P.I. sales representative today to take the
Odor and Alkalinity
As suppliers of national restaurant chains and government-financed programs
were buying Beef Product meat to use in ground beef, complaints about its
pungent odor began to emerge.
In early 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to Beef
Products after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a
"very strong odor of ammonia" in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings, state
"It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia," said Dr. Charles Tant, a
Georgia agriculture department official. "I've never seen anything like it."
Unaware that the meat was treated with ammonia since it was not on the
label Georgia officials assumed it was accidentally contaminated and
alerted the agriculture department. In their complaint, the officials noted
that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in
contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened
Beef Products said the ammonia did not pose a danger and would be diluted
when its beef was mixed with other meat. The U.S.D.A. accepted Beef Product's
conclusion, but other customers had also complained about the smell.
Untreated beef naturally contains ammonia and is typically about 6 on the pH
scale, near that of rain water and milk. The Beef Products' study that won
U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat
to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods. The
company's 2003 study cited the "potential issues surrounding the
palatability of a pH-9.5 product."
Soon after getting initial approval from the agriculture department, the
company devised a plan to make a less alkaline version of the beef, internal
company documents show. Beef Products acknowledged in an e-mail exchange
that it was making a lower pH version, but did not specify the level or when
it began selling it.
In 2008, after the school lunch program temporarily suspended a Beef
Products plant for salmonella contamination, the company wrote in a letter
that its effort to combat ammonia "aroma" might have reduced the alkalinity
below the initial target levels. It said it was taking steps to ensure that
the alkalinity remained elevated.
Samples of the treated beef obtained by The Times this month showed a pH as
low as 7.75, according to an analysis by two laboratories. Dr. Michael P.
Doyle, a food industry consultant and director of the Center for Food Safety
at the University of Georgia, said one point on the exponential pH scale was
a considerable difference, and "could have a significant effect on the
antimicrobial effectiveness of the ammonia."
This month, Beef Products provided The Times with new research that the
company said showed that E. coli and salmonella were undetectable at a pH
level of 8.5. The agriculture department said it did not learn that Beef
Products was using lower levels until October, after inquiries by The Times,
and that it was studying the company's research.
McDonald's, whose hamburgers have contained Beef Products meat since 2004,
declined to say if it monitored it for pH. But Danya Proud, a chain
spokeswoman, said, "We expect the pH level to meet the specifications that
are approved by the U.S.D.A."
Contamination and Notification
At 6:36 a.m. on Aug. 10, the Beef Products plant in South Sioux City, Neb.,
started up its production line for the school lunch program. In 60 minutes,
the plant produced a batch of 26,880 pounds of processed beef that tested
positive for E. coli.
Six days later at the same plant, another 26,880-pound lot was found to have
salmonella, government records and interviews show.
Within hours of confirming the contamination, the school lunch division of
the Agriculture Department in Washington began investigating.
Just down the hall at department headquarters, the division that oversees
meat for the general public did not conduct its own inquiry for another
month and half, after receiving questions from The Times.
The problems in South Sioux City came shortly after school lunch officials
had suspended a Beef Products plant in Holcomb, Kan., for excessive
salmonella. The main U.S.D.A. was not notified of the suspension by school
lunch officials, and the plant continued to supply other customers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since directed school lunch officials
to share information about their suspensions with the department's meat
In addressing the latest contamination cases in Nebraska, Beef Products said
it suspected a glitch in its treatment operations, referring to ammonia gas
by its chemical name, NH3, according to an e-mail message to school lunch
"The system was stopped for two minutes in order to install a new valve,"
the company said. "When the system was restarted, there was product flow for
approximately one minute without NH3 flow."
After the school lunch officials replied that the glitch might explain only
one of the two episodes, Beef Products shifted focus to its suppliers,
saying it would more closely scrutinize them for contamination.
Under the U.S.D.A.'s new policy for Beef Products, the company itself is
also likely to get more scrutiny.
Cargill, one of the nation's largest hamburger makers, is a big buyer of
Beef Products' ammoniated trimmings for its patties. Company records show
that Beef Products, like other suppliers, has periodically exceeded Cargill's
limits on acceptable bacteria levels. That led Cargill to stop buying meat
from two Beef Products plants for several months in 2006 after company tests
showed excessive levels of salmonella.
But the following year, when Cargill faced an E. coli outbreak, it ruled out
Beef Products as a possible culprit, citing the U.S.D.A.'s view that the
ammonia treatment provided a "lethality step" for the pathogen. In addition,
Cargill officials said recently, they suspect that another supplier, not
Beef Products, was the problem. As a result, Beef Products did not face as
wide a recall as other Cargill suppliers.
Recently, another E. coli outbreak was traced to a hamburger maker in
upstate New York that also used multiple suppliers, including Beef Products.
This time, the agriculture department said Beef Products was being recalled
with other suppliers, although a source of the contamination had not been
"This will continue to be our approach going forward," the department said.
Griff Palmer contributed reporting.
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