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What's In The Beef?

February 4, 2010, 10:05 PM by Angela Kennecke

What's In The Beef?
Where's the beef? A better question may be what's in that beef?  A South Dakota packing plant owner came up with a way to use fatty trimmings, once only suited for pet food and cooking oil, for lean ground beef. The answer is ammonia.

Ammonia-treated beef is now in 70 percent of the hamburger you eat.

Nothing's more all-American than the hamburger. Processed beef from Beef Products plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska is a component in most ground beef from fast food chain restaurants, like McDonald's and Burger King, to grocery stores to the nation's school lunch program.

In video from the movie "Food Inc.," Beef Products founder Eldon Roth explains how his unique method of killing E.coli and Salmonella in otherwise unusable fatty trimmings revolutionized the beef industry.

"It's a marriage of science and technology," Roth said.

The Department of Agriculture found the process to be so effective, in 2007, it exempted the company from routine bacteria testing of meat sold in hamburgers.

But this method for treating beef was the subject of a major investigative report in the New York Times. The New York Times exposed government and industry records that showed in testing for the U.S. school lunch program, E.coli and salmonella were found 48 times in Beef Products meat. But BPI discovered the problem before the meat left the plant. So the meat was never shipped or served. The Times also reported that consumer complaints over the ammonia smell led to a reduction in the use of ammonia to a less effective level.

"Trimmings can be from fatty trimmings; the external part of the carcass," SDSU Meat Science Professor Rich Underwood said.

KELOLAND news sat down with a South Dakota State University meat science professor to find out more about beef treated in this way.

"The USDA says we can add these things to hamburger products and it can be labeled as hamburger," Underwood said.

Angela Kennecke: Is there anything inherently bad about washing your beef with ammonia?
Underwood: I can't specifically comment on the ammonia process. I'm not an expert. That would be a question you'd need to ask BPI.

We tried to ask BPI at company headquarters located in an unmarked building in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. But they refused to do an on camera interview. However, in a written statement, BPI says ammonia is used to make food safer.

In an open letter on BPI's Web site following the New York Times report, BPI stated, "As to the safety of our product, the Times is simply wrong--our product is safe." BPI says it tests each batch of beef and E.coli was found in just .06 percent of the samples.

Kennecke: Should ammonia be on the label of ground beef washed with ammonia? Should ammonia be on the label?
Underwood: There is ammonia in our body. If there was ammonia, it would be difficult to distinguish from the normal tissues of an animal.

"That's not appealing to me. I can understand why people are concerned about it," Jon Siemonsma of Renner Corner Meat Locker said.

The Renner Corner Meat Locker grounds beef on a daily basis. But here the fatty trimmings go into the "inedible barrel."

"That in turn goes to the rendering company where they process it into, I assume, dog food and bone meal, stuff like that," Siemonsma said.

This butcher has a problem with what he throws away showing up on your dinner plate.

"It just doesn't sound good. If it belongs in the barrel, put it in the barrel. The way I look at it, if I wouldn't eat it, I wouldn't expect anyone else to eat it either," Siemonsma said.

Ultimately using fatty trimmings is an economic decision. In the case of the school lunch program, it saves the government about a million dollars a year.

"It is an economic decision to add fat to sausage and ground beef, an economic decision and improves palatability. And makes it more economical to produce," Underwood said.

"I would rather pay a little more and get good quality stuff, not something that needs to be washed, rinsed or whatever. I would pay the extra dime or whatever it takes," Siemonsma said.

Actually about three cents a pound in savings. But with millions of pounds of beef being sold to major distributors, it adds up to enough in sales for BPI to add a $400 million expansion to its South Sioux City plant.

While no illnesses have been linked to Beef Products' meat, questions surrounding the process and its effectiveness have prompted the USDA to revoke BPI's exemption from routine testing. The USDA is also reviewing the company's research supporting its ammonia injection claims.

Some of that research was done at Iowa State University. A law firm has asked for the records related to that research on ammoniated beef, but BPI has filed a lawsuit seeking a court order against the university to prevent the records from being released.

Fast food chains McDonald's and Burger King, along with food conglomerate Cargill, all say they'll keep using the meat and that their products are safe.

Many large chain grocery stores get in pre-packed beef. Other smaller stores ground their own beef. The butcher we talked with says you should simply ask.

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