Hamburger Helper? Slime, Ammonia and Cow Shit

In our ongoing series “There’s WHAT in My Food?”, we submit for your reading pleasure (though probably not while you’re eating) our comments on a stunning New York Times investigation that exposed how an ammonia-treated beef filler used in 50% of the nation’s ground beef (possibly up to 80%, according to one industry source) has repeatedly been found contaminated with deadly e. coli and salmonella, despite claims that the ammonia-bathed product would actually eliminate the harmful bacteria.

Meat maker Beef Products Inc (BPI) created a product the beef industry loves. Prior to BPI’s innovation, the slimiest, nastiest slaughterhouse scraps were used primarily for pet food (while the fatty bits were rendered for various oil-based food and non-food products). But in the late 1990’s, BPI began experimenting with ways to take these dirty, feces-stained scraps and turn them into, well, dirty, feces-contaminated burger filler.

In 2001, they came up with the answer. Since slaughterhouse trimmings from the outside parts of the carcass have higher loads of fecal matter (yes, cow shit), and hence higher loads of disease-causing bacteria, BPI needed a way to make their product edible enough to pass as “safe” meat, without going through expensive de-shittifying processes. BPI’s solution involves grinding the meat into a gruesome pink slime, then dowsing the slime with ammonia and blast freezing the whole slimy, shit-filled mess.

Most people know ammonia as a common household cleanser. Who knew it was also a ground beef filler? (It’s a floor cleaner! No, It’s a ground beef filler! Wait a minute: our pink slime is a floor cleaner AND a beef filler!)

Studies paid for by BPI have shown the efficacy of their process for killing bacteria, demonstrating that the high-alkaline environment created by the ammonia bath followed by blast freezing successfully eliminated threats from pathogens. The company even claimed that adding its product to other ground beef would kill any bacteria in the mix (a bold claim, since the company’s own studies found no such significant effect).

A new product was born, and meat byproducts were lucratively rescued from the dog food bowl and put directly onto our plates.  The company’s lobbying was so successful that government regulators allowed ground beef suppliers to use the filler without labels indicating that the beef contained added ammonia, so consumers would never know what they were eating.

Except in some cases: in 2003, Georgia prison officials returned 7,000 pounds of BPI’s filler, after prison cooks complained about the strong ammonia smell. One Georgia agriculture department official told the Times, “It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To mask the odor and taste, it appears BPI started lowering the ammonia load. Problem is, less ammonia means more bacteria survive the process, resulting in a beef filler containing both shit and its attendant disease-causing microbes.

Still, following USDA approval of the products, officials at the USDA-run federal school lunch program began buying the BPI product for use in our nation’s schools. Because who better to test this risky new meat process on than our nation’s children?

USDA was so confident of the safety of the BPI product that it exempted the company from USDA bacterial testing requirements in 2007. Apparently no one from the USDA meat testing program talked to the folks at USDA’s school lunch program: the lunch ladies had already been testing BPI’s product, and the findings were disturbing: since 2005, BPI’s products tested positive for E. coli three times, and for salmonella forty eight times.

Still, the school lunch program continues to use BPI’s product: last year 5.5 million pounds were served to our nation’s school kids. USDA staff told the Times that buying the cheap meat filler saves $1 million a year – or about .01% of the lunch program’s annual $8.1 billion budget.

Because again, why wouldn’t we want to save .01% of the budget by experimenting on our kids with a potentially deadly, shit-filled former pet-food product?

But it’s not only school kids who are unwittingly eating the BPI filler. Cargill, one of the country’s biggest suppliers of ground beef to institutions and retailers, is a major buyer of the BPI product. Other big buyers include McDonalds and Burger King. Fast food customers are likely eating even more BPI filler with their burger: school lunch officials originally allowed its ground beef to include up to 10% of the BPI sludge meat, but later increased that to 15%. In fast food and other outlets, one industry source states the level as “typically” between 15-25%.

Of course, in response to the Times expose, these responsible companies immediately announced they’d stop selling burgers stretched with the BPI-ammoniated shit slime.

We wish.

In fact, the companies staunchly defended serving shit-filled, ammoniated beef to unwitting customers. McDonalds said its “food safety and quality assurance standards are among the highest in the industry” (a sad but likely true indictment of the fast food industry’s standards).

Just once, in response to documented reports that its product is putting our kids’ health at risk, we’d love to hear an industry say, “We will change. The health ands safety of the children and families who buy our products are our highest priority. We are sorry we let you down. We will change.”

Instead, we get: Take this shit and eat it. Or don’t. We don’t care about you or your kids. History has shown that we can poison you and get away with it, so why shouldn’t we. We will never change.

Those who continue to eat ground beef products should know that packaging instructions on proper cooking to kill potentially lethal bacteria lurking in the burger have proven inconsistent and inadequate to protect health. That’s why we recommend avoiding ground beef altogether, especially for kids, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems (since these groups are most susceptible to deadly outcomes from food poisoning).  If you must have burgers, ask your supermarket meat department (or better yet, a small, local butcher or natural beef producer) if they have meat from companies who refuse to use BPI’s filler (you can also get a nice quality steak and grind your own burger in a food processor or kitchenaid grinder).

In the too-little-too-late department, USDA has recently announced it has withdrawn BPI’s testing exemption, although the agency has not said when it would begin testing the company’s products. Meanwhile, BPI has filed suit to keep secret company-funded safety studies on the meat slime that were conducted by scientists at Iowa State University.

But BPI wasn’t always so secretive: after winning a 2004 food industry “Food Quality” award for the safety and quality of its products, the company was feted by one of the judges for their approach to sharing safety information: “They sponsored research and also published and shared the findings with their competition. They showed that food safety isn’t a competitive issue.”

Translation:  eat shit, America.