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Food Safety Alert - Ammonia in United States Beef and Labeling Deficiencies

Updated on July 02, 2015

On December 30th, 2009, a New York Times investigation reported that many of our beef products here in the United use ammonia in the processing of beef. Many of the hamburgers we eat at fast food restaurants have had ammonia injected for the sake of infection control and cost savings.

The story is absolutely fascinating, but it may forever change your taste buds for a hamburger at your favorite local fast food restaurant.

The end goal should be better disclosure to the consumer regarding the ingredients that our foods contain and, just as important, information on the processing and the chemicals used in the processing of food.

Pink Slime in US Beef

pink slime in US Beef - food labeling problems
pink slime in US Beef - food labeling problems | Source

Ammonia Cell NH3

colorful rendering of Ammonia cell NH3
colorful rendering of Ammonia cell NH3 | Source

Ammonia

How is Ammonia Utilized in Other Industries - Beyond Beef?

Ammonia Definition - From Wikipedia

"Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3....

Ammonia contributes significantly to the nutritional needs...is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals.

Although in wide use, ammonia is both caustic and hazardous.

Ammonia, as used commercially, is often called anhydrous ammonia. This term emphasizes the absence of water in the material."

Source: Wikipedia

Ammonia in the Beef

Ammonia in Freshwater Aquariums - From About.com

Shirlie Sharpe detailed in About.com how ammonia is consider in freshwater aquariums:

"Ammonia is a toxic substance that builds up in the aquarium, particularly in a newly setup tank. Ammonia is the first step in the nitrogen cycle..."

Source: About.com

Beef Products, Inc. - BPI Products (BPI)

On their website, Beef Products, Inc., a publicly traded company under the stock symbol, BPI, detailed the products that they process.

"BPI products are being utilized by most of the QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chains, HRI (Hotel, Restaurant, Institution) suppliers, and food service suppliers. Additionally, BPI® Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings are commonly used by major packers and processors as an integral part of their retail ground beef or hamburger blends. BPI's product is also approved for use in the USDA’s AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) school lunch program.

  • Fresh and Frozen hamburger patties
  • Fresh retail ground beef (bulk, high-OX or low-OX MAP)
  • Low-fat hotdogs
  • Taco meats
  • Lunch meats
  • Chili
  • Beef stick snacks
  • Sausages, pepperoni, and other encased meats
  • Retail frozen entrees
  • Meatballs
  • Fabricated roast beef
  • Canned foods"

Journal of Food Processing

Want to learn more about food processing?  Here is a great website complete with journal that specifically address food production, food contamination, food processing and meat processing.

"Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) provides access to over 3 million articles across nearly 1500 journals and 7000 Online Books and major reference works. It also holds industry leading databases such as The Cochrane Library, chemistry databases and the acclaimed Current Protocols laboratory manuals.

Wiley InterScience is one of the world's premiere resources for study, teaching and advanced research."


Staph - Staphylococcus Aureus - Bacteria Infection

Staph (pronounced: staff) is the shortened name for staphylococcus aureus (pronounced: staf-uh-low-kah-kus sometimes denoted for some of the species as S. aureus), is a type of bacteria. Many of these bacteria are harmless and live on our skin surfaces most commonly around the nose, mouth, genitals, etc... With over 30 species of staph, many version cause infection.

Infections include food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, boils, impetigo (sometimes denoted by blusters with pub) and cellulitis (skin inflammation often accompanied by fever, chills and muscle aches).

MRSA is one of the deadliness bacteria of the staphlococcus family of bacteria. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterial infection that is highly resistant to some antibiotics. MRSA staph skin infections cause a red, swollen, and painful area on the skin.

This is a critical topic for the consumer to thoroughly review. Therefore, I have laid this article out in three sections in order to fully understand the complexity and history of these potentially life threatening issues that demand new regulations. Follow through the ABC's of what occurred - A. What is Ammonia? Who Is Affected? How is it Used?, B. What Went Wrong? and C. Why Did This Happen?

What Happened with the Beef

The New York Times report details that labeling for ammonia was exempted. And yes, ammonia is the chemical we often clean with - it was injected into beef to provide E.coli and salmonella protection. Amazingly the consumer was never notified! Essentially, ammonia is a naturally occurring chemical and deemed part of the processing of the food not an ingredient. Upon review, I believe you will agree with me that the consumer deserves full disclosure of all ingredients - including the ingredients and the processing used in food preparation.

Ammoniated Fatty Trimmings for Hamburger Patties

Ammoniated trimmings are processed by Beef Products, Inc. This company is a major supplier to some of the world's largest food producers, such as Cargill. Our fast-food restaurants and school lunch rooms use these beef patties and other related food products for their customers and students. Beef products with less fat may not contain or even be a candidate for these potentially harmful ammoniated processes. As I detailed earlier, the questions are "which products?" and "where is the disclosure?"; food labeling needs to be changed to reflect new technology and chemicals, even "natural chemical" processes on food labels.

A. What is Ammonia? Who Is Affected? How is it Used?

Ammonia (nitrogen) is a chemical that occurs naturally and also can be produced by man (see the Harber-Bosch process devised by the Germans for World War I described in detail below). Ammonia nitrogen is often present in water as a result of the decay of plant and animal matter. Raw sewage, industrial effluents (from petroleum refineries) are other common occurrences that produce ammonia.

Who is Affected?

The mainstay of America's hamburgers is the primary use of this anti-bacterial process, which would include our quick service restaurants also known as "QSRs" (which is another term for our fast-food restaurants), grocery store chains and our federal school lunch program. The NY Times article details that the "federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef with ammonia last year alone."

How is Ammonia Utilized? Fertilizer to Pharmaceuticals and Beyond

For the beef industry, ammonia is infused into beef to provide a natural method of ridding foods of bacteria. Ammonia production is utilized extensively throughout different industries and in a number of different manners from technology products in the semi-conductor industry, ammunition to refrigeration and fertilizers. Since ammonia is a chemical, the production of ammonia is best classified in the pharmaceutical industry.

Interestingly, many food producers, especially large food producers, have vertical integration with pharmaceutical companies in some manner. Additionally, there is a synthetic ammonia - a man-made version. Amazing how man is able to copy nature!

What are the Effects of High Concentrations of Ammonia?

High Concentrations of Ammonia - Harmful to the Environment & Toxic to Aquatic Life

High concentrations of ammonia can indicate contamination from waste treatment facilities, industrial effluents or fertilizer (ammonia - nitrogen) run off.

A high concentration of ammonia has been found toxic to aquatic life.

How is Ammonia Utilized in the Beef Process

The ammonia process used in meat processing is intended to combat microbial pathogens like E. coli and salmonella as mentioned in the article. I imagine they also thought it would handle dangerous staph bacteria such as MRSA.

The process uses "low-grade beef trimmings" to fill in the 100% all beef!

Untreated beef contains ammonia at a scale of about 6 of pH level, which is near the pH of rainwater and milk. The study that won the U.S.D.A. approval was at a ph level of 10. Concern was given for products to still be palatable at a pH level of 9.5.

B. What Went Wrong?

The investigative report by New York Times details two major concerns 1.) No 3rd party testing of this ammonia process used for disinfection and 2.) Since "ammonia" is a naturally occurring chemical, labeling requirements for chemical additives was waived.

The label which we as consumers thought was government controlled stated "100 percent beef” is not in its purest form - In other words, this is not true, it is 100 percent beef, but the processing chemicals that have been used and linger should be fully disclosed. Beef, in many cases, contains "anhydrous ammonia" which has been added intentionally by the processing plant to maintain freshness and combat harmful, sometimes deadly bacteria.

Food Safety Regulations

GRAS - Generally Regarded As Safe

The standards of the United States governmental agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, use a standard labeled "the GRAS standard". This standard has been defined in order to effectively handle administratively all new technological advances. Ammonia infusion was a process that was categorized as an acceptable standard.

What Really Happened - Behind the Scenes?

The New York Times did an exceptional job of explaining and detailing exactly what happened. In a short synopsis; Two events occurred.

Two suppliers, one of which was named in the New York Times article, has had its beef products recalled by the U.S.D.A. due to E.coli outbreaks. Interestingly, Beef Products, Inc. - the one supplier named - did not have "as wide of a recall as other Cargill suppliers".

The two events that are at issue here of course are 1.) The outbreaks of E.coli and 2.) The labeling of food products. Labeling must include full disclosure of the processing methods - not just the "ingredients" and possibly other chemicals the food has been exposed to - we already do this for peanuts which is a natural product, why not include a full disclosure also for ammonia and carbon monoxide?

C. Why Did This Happen?

The History of the Beef Products, Inc. Process & Use of Ammonia

Eldon N. Roth, founder and owner of Beef Products, Inc., spent the 1990s looking for solutions for the proliferation of bacteria problems that plague food. The road is rough and he considered many different processes from electricity running through the beef trimmings to kill bacteria to ammonia injection. Searching for what he defined as the "risk-free burger", Mr. Roth ended up settling on ammonia processing.

Roth went on to secure several patents for "over two dozen pieces of equipment and methods used in processing beef." Dr. David M.Theno, a food safety consultant, commends Mr. Roth using his skills to actively search for improvements for our food safety. In the New York Times article, Dr.Theno goes on to commend Eldon Roth for his vision.

Roth Stands Beyond the Ammonia Process

Roth gave 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."

The FDA Endorsement of the Process - FDA Compliance

"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 extent as if you cooked the product.'"

What Went Right?

The school lunch division of the Department of Agriculture in Washington is credited with beginning an investigation within hours of the notification of a batch of processed beef that tested positive for E.coli.

And What Went Wrong?

But the New York Times is quick to point out that the division overseeing the general public delayed its investigation for "another month and half".

C. Why Did This Happen?

Many may have read the article and assumed that this happened just for the sake of cost. If you review the full story closely by the New York Times, Eldon Roth, the founder of Beef Products, Inc. was simply trying to help the food industry and prevent sickness. Additionally, it is important to note that the food giants, such as Cargill, did shut down many operations, two of which were Beef Products, Inc. This story is much more than just dollars and cents, it is a story of new technology, government oversight and the need for the consumer to be informed.

Balancing the Odor, Alkalinity and the Safety of the Consumer

There is a sensitive balance regarding the "correct" use of ammonia. Beyond the level of 9.5 there is a distinct ammonia smell which may not be "palatable" to the consumer. The article alludes to a possible assumption that a ph level lower than 8 presents a higher risk of E.coli.

Dr. Michael P. Doyle, a food industry consultant and director for the Center for the Food Safety at the University of Georgia, stated that the level of alkalinity in beef "could have a significant effect on the antimicrobial effectiveness of the ammonia".

In order to combat the ammonia "aroma", the levels of alkalinity need to be lowered. The New York Times research samples showed a pH level as low as 7.75. Remember the testing that approved this process was at a pH level of 9.5 - 10 for alkalinity.

"The Consumer Rules"

The food industry in the United States is dominated by privately held companies, owned by various family members. One website stated it best - "the consumer rules!". What we demand as consumers, what we will pay, what disclosures we demand these companies will actively seek to deliver.

Therefore, it is critical for us, as consumers, to understand this new technology and demand full transparency. Learning what is happening to the food that we ingest and how it gets to our plates is critical. Knowing the risks of bacteria is important to protecting our health and the health of our families. Bacteria, deadly bacteria, can be found in meats and in hand to hand contact as we have learned more about MRSA. Understanding the unseen is an important element in education for personal safety and nutrition.

The Backstory - Why No Label for this Chemical Additive?

The FDA uses a standard called "Generally Recognized as Safe Substance (GRAS). Since ammonia is a naturally forming chemical in nature, it was recognized and labeled as "GRAS". Being a new processing technique and not an ingredient, the chemical processing was not deemed within their scope of items needed for disclosure. Ammonia is not the only ingredient used in "processing" of food, there is also a process which includes carbon monoxide that is present in the preparation of many frozen vegetables.

Health Media and Pink Slime

Ammonia soaked US Beef and the media about pink slime
Ammonia soaked US Beef and the media about pink slime | Source

Other Deceptive Practices in the Food Industry

The food industry with its attempt to add new processing technique to help safeguard us from harmful bacteria is undergoing a metamorphosis both in operation and reporting standards, however, more work is needed.

Better education of the consumer of what goes into our food both "ingredients" and "processing" is needed. Ammoniated fatty trimmings is one issue as it another issue with "carbon monoxide".

Food Quality News reports that carbon monoxide in meats is considered deceptive by 80% of consumers.

Deficiencies in Food Labelling

The report from Food Quality News entitled "Carbon Monoxide in Meats Considered Deceptive" details that a process of infusing inert gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and then heat sealing the package results in a 15 day extension of freshness to the meats and vegetables (as compared to 5 days without this process).


Fraudulent Labeling - U.S.D.A.'S Review

To the Department of the U.S.D.A.'s credit, the Times report detailed that Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist with the U.S.D.A. questioned the allowance of the ammonia processing in ground beef to be a form of "fraudulent labeling".

Changing the labeling mandates of the U.S.D.A. to keep up with the new technology is now fully recognized by the U.S.D.A. thanks to the thorough investigative reporting by the NY Times staff.

Department of of Agriculture

It is reassuring that the NY Times report detailed that "Within hours of confirming the contamination, the school lunch division of the Agriculture Department in Washington began investigating".

It is also helpful for the NY Times to report another department's response time was over one month - and that was the department that overseas meat for the general public.

The standards of operations among the divisions of the Department of Agriculture need closer review.


The Good News - The Food Giants Are Trying

In 2007, the NY Times reports that the food giant "Cargill, which uses more than 50 vendors suspended three facilities for excessive salmonella; two were Beef Products plants, records show." Cargill who is one of the nation's "largest hamburger makers" is also the largest privately held company as reported by Forbes in 2006. Cargill is a major customer of Beef Products, Inc.'s "ammoniated trimmings for its patties."

NY Times Investigative Efforts Recognized - A Public Service

This information is brought to you by the investigative efforts of the New York Times. It was through their diligence of reviewing records, sampling treated beef and speaking with regulatory officials such as the U.S.D.A., Department of Agriculture and the F.D. A., industry experts from private sector that specialize in food safety along with former microbiologists that we have learned about these new technological processes that demand new regulations and labeling for the protection of the consumer.

Beef Products - Local Meat Stores - Order Beef On Line

The good news in the food industry is many local meat stores still exist. Seek out small, family owned stores which process their own beef. Order beef on line - also, check on line for some great meat companies. Don't be shy about asking about their meat products processing. Remember they want to deliver the highest quality beef products to you - you "the consumer rule".

Should Use of Ammonia in Beef Products Be Fully Disclosed to Consumers?

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Should the Use of Carbon Monoxide in Food Be Fully Disclosed to Consumers?

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Summary

Technology is quickly advancing. As technology moves forward, we as consumers need an education of the processes that take place in order to make better decisions about our health and the health of our families.

Understanding the unseen, understanding bacteria in food and in our environment are critical health items. Demanding full disclosure of new processing techniques is needed by the consumer.

New labeling mandates are needed but perhaps new techniques are needed. The all natural food sanitizers are an options to be strongly considered.

In summary, the food giants are concerned. The regulatory agencies are concerned. We, the consumer need to show up and be counted for in our choices.

Ask the Questions - Demand the Answers

Ask the questions, demand the answers, shop at the local meat shops, spend the money now to know what is in your food. Local butchers in my area exist and can be counted upon to give clear answers.

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    • Karen Russell profile image

      Karen Russell 7 years ago

      THANK YOU KELLY, THAT IS HORRIFYING BUT, I AGREE TOTALLY, WHEN I GO INTO THE SUPER MARKET LATELY, I AM SOMETIMES WEARY OF MY SELECTIONS IN THE MEAT DEPARTMENT & I NEVER BUY GROUND BEEF ANY MORE, IT DOESN'T LOOK FRESH TO ME & I AM A PERSON WHO SNEAKS A SNIFF, SOMETIMES IT'S ALARMING AT THE SNIFF I GET BACK SO, I JUST MOVE ON. MY HUSBAND & I STILL EAT MEAT BUT, WE HAVE MORE FRESH VEGETABLES THAN ANYTHING. THE WAY THIS WORLD IS, SOONER OR LATER WE MAY BECOME VEGETARIANS...LOL, THANKS AGAIN A GREAT HUB...

    • profile image

      Marc 7 years ago

      Great work, Kelly. I have left the reigns of supermarket food for the most part, being not interested in the "Human Chow" they are largely giving people today. I have gone back to the local farms, buying all of my milk, eggs, beef, chicken, turkey, and vegetables all from local farmers. This supports diversity, our local farmers, our local economy, and you tend to know what you are buying and eating. From the supermarket, who know what you are getting: are you getting genetically modified food, pesticides, melamine, phthalates, ammoniated beef trimmings, where did it come from, how was it made, and who made it? What do you prefer to eat?

    • profile image

      KellyEngaldo 7 years ago

      Dear Marc,

      Thank you for your kind words. I am fortunate we have several local beef markets here in my area. I hope the Chicagoans who frequent Lake Geneva realize what a gem we have in our local small grocers who actually handle their own beef! At first I thought they were expensive - after I learned about the industry - the price is not pricey when compared to the "filler possibilities"!

      Thank you for stopping by.

    • profile image

      OzoneWater 7 years ago

      The local stores are always the best - if you can talk directly to the butcher - the owner - that is platinum. The local store owners sell a premium product - if we understand that - are we then more likely to pay the price?

    • dugger62 profile image

      Deborah Dugger 6 years ago from Colorado

      I think it would be better to do our own food supply- from the way things are going.

      I have a friend who informed me that they are also placing 9 different animals in with the ground beef- now I have not researched this yet- but I wouldn't doubt if for a second.

    • 2besure profile image

      Pamela Lipscomb 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Shocking hub! For years I have been cutting down of red meat. This is just the incentive to stop eating it completely!

    • kiwi91 profile image

      kiwi91 6 years ago from USA

      I just started buying beef from a local company once in a while, but this makes me consider buying it from there more often. I wonder if the taste can be detected in the beef? Our food standards are so low, it's shocking. In a lot of ways, the U.S. is far ahead in terms of technology, but in terms of health and food, we have a lot of work to do. Thanks for this information.

    • Joyce F profile image

      Joyce F 6 years ago from USA

      Great Hub! Unfortunately ammonia isn't the only thing in United States beef that shouldn't be there. When possible we purchase grass fed beef from a local farmer. Ever so often we purchase half a beef. At least we know what is in it.

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Joyce F,

      Purchasing grass fed beef locally is absolutely brilliant. Sadly, the only meat I purchase from WalMart now is my bacon. I travel 5-10 miles for a local beef provider. If you understand the difference, the pennies on the dollar are simply not worth the health risk.

      I just wish WalMart would provide clearer labels and more choice - premium choices would be helpful.

    • profile image

      pharmaceutical and food industries 4 years ago

      pharmaceutical and food industries insulated containers is like a portable coolroom or simultaneous transport of frozen and refrigerated food. Use them to transport temperature sensitive products.

      http://coolpac.co/products/insulated-shipping-cont...

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      I, unlike many of my fellow writers, love information and sharing. I don't consider this spam because it gives information that is related this post. Keeping food cool is critical. You might find www.4FoodSafety.hubpages.com interesting for your target market.

    • profile image

      David Terry 4 years ago

      Why do you not address:

      1. How MSDS facts of ammonia compare to dihydrogen monoxide. Millions have died from dihydrogen monoxide, but we are not as concerned.

      2. New York Times retraction stating BPI has not been linked to any foodborne illness or recall

      3. What is the level of ammonia found in soy and tofu (hint: 4x compared to beef)

      4. Why does Gerald Zirnstein no longer work for the USDA?

      5. Is this article more focused on eliminating the use of ammonia so a process like "layered ozonated dihydrogen monoxide", which the author endorses?

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      I simply feel the use of ANY processing ingredient should be disclosed.

      I also feel consumers want to know the amount of nitrates in their cured meat.

      Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure - let the consumer make the decision.

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