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Food Safety News

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BPI Suspends 70 Percent of Ammoniated Beef Production

As consumers ditch 'pink slime,' BPI suspends production at three plants

Responding to a dramatic drop in consumer demand, Beef Products Inc, the nation’s leading maker of ammoniated beef now widely known as “pink slime,” announced it is suspending production at three plants. The suspended plants account for approximately 70 percent of the company’s capacity to produce Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) treated with ammonium hydroxide.

LFTB is essentially low-cost filler made from leftover trimmings once relegated to pet food and other byproducts. Because all beef trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company adds a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bacteria. The product, which is 90 percent lean, is then mixed in with other, higher fat content ground beef.  

Calling the recent barrage of negative coverage of its product “unfounded and misguided,” the company said it would temporarily suspend the operations at production facilities in Garden City, Kansas; Amarillo, Texas; and Waterloo, Iowa, which employ around 650 people. The Dakota Dune, South Dakota headquarters plant will continue operating, but not at capacity, according to company spokesman Rich Jochum. 

“The plant probably won’t be at capacity for a while,” said Jochum, adding that the company’s production plans would depend on how long it takes to “educate and inform consumers” to restore demand for the product. In the meantime, the company will continue to pay and provide benefits to the suspended plant workers. 

Demand has plummeted in large part because many of the nation’s leading grocery chains have responded to consumer concern about the undisclosed presence of ammonia-hydroxide-treated beef trimmings and dropped LFTB from their ground beef. Safeway, SuperValu, Kroger, Food Lion have completely dropped the ingredient from ground beef and Walmart is now offering consumers a choice. 

Last spring, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver sparked interest in the topic after railing against the product on his ABC reality show. He called the “clever scientific process” shocking and a breach of consumer trust and referred to LFTB as “shit.” Fast food giants McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King all dropped LFTB several months later.

In the past few weeks, the LFTB debate has stuck a national chord. ABC World News has run several segments on “pink slime” and The Daily, an iPad publication, re-reported issues that had been brought up in 2009 by the New York Times in a series that won the Pulitzer Prize. The Daily pointed to the fact that USDA was gearing up to purchase more of the product for the national school lunch program. 

“Pink slime” caught even more momentum when Bettina Elias Siegel, a mom and blogger, petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the product from school lunches. Since launching her petition at change.org, she has attracted more than quarter of a million signatures. USDA has said school districts could opt not to serve the treated beef.

“It’s not just the petition,” said Jochum in an interview with Food Safety News. “ABC News, The Daily, Jamie Oliver — they are all part of what feels like a campaign. They’ve put out enough false information that it will take a significant amount of time to undo. To restore demand, first we have to restore consumer confidence.”

Jochum said the company was considering legal action and said misinformation from media sources included over-using the term “pink slime” without attribution, falsehoods about the ingredients, the use of ammonium hydroxide, the levels of ammonium hydroxide, and what it’s used for.

Will ground beef be less safe if ammoniated beef is dropped for good? 

Jochum said there has been “very limited research” on the precise impact ammoniated beef has on the safety of the mixed product — or whether BPI’s LFTB actually makes the whole burger less likely to carry  E. coli. 

Iowa State University did a study a decade ago that showed there was a small reduction in pathogens in ground beef mixed with BPI’s LFTB, so it could provide an additional level of safety, but it’s not settled science. 

The bigger issue, on the food safety front, is that BPI’s overall testing program is much more advanced than other meat processors. BPI tests and holds — waiting for test results before releasing the product into commerce — and tests for Salmonella and non-O157 E. coli in addition to E. coli O157:H7. 

“We’ve had positives and we’ve prevented them from going to market,” said Jochum. “We know now that some of those will now go into ground beef. They won’t go through our plant.”

Whether or not BPI ever wins the image war on “pink slime,” it seems clear the company is making a compelling case for more progressive testing policies for ground beef. 

“It’s a good argument for everyone doing finished product testing,” added Jochum. “Unfortunately, we don’t have control over anyone but ourselves.”

“Ultimately, the question will be: are there any processing aids that will be acceptable to consumers? Or is the idea of processing aids unacceptable?”

© Food Safety News

    Now what other horrible food that is hidden from the public can we rebel against next?

  • Allison

    Out of purely malicious intent, effete food snobs cause hundreds to be laid off from work at BPI. Ironic these laid-off employees were family folks who couldn’t afford snobby boutique food on their regular grocery budgets…and who now have no income at all. Maybe food stamps to keep he kids fed until the economy turns around and another job becomes available? Good going, foodies. Foodies and the small farm lobby are evil, pure evil!

  • I thought what Doug Powell wrote over at Barf Blog was right on:
    If I ran BPI and made pink slime
    Doug Powell
    I’m Eldon Roth.
    I’ve spent my life committed to making food safe for millions of people. For me, my wife, my kids, my grandkids, and millions of school kids across the U.S.
    If I’m at a family BBQ, or meeting with government inspectors, I say the same thing: we provide safe, sustainable meat, at an affordable price.
    I’ve watched the devastation that dangerous bugs like E. coli O157:H7 can wreak on people’s lives, loved ones, and innocent children who just wanted a burger.
    That’s why my company, BPI, instituted the best food safety practices for beef production – and long before government told us what to do.
    It was the right thing to do.
    My company publicly discloses all test results, good or bad, not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. Bacteria happen. We’re doing whatever we can, along with the best science, to provide safe, sustainable and affordable beef.
    Freedom of choice is a fundamental right in American society; it’s something I personally value. That’s why we provide any and all information about our products and processes. Labels, websites, smartphone codes, you want it, we’ll make sure it’s there, because I value choice.
    And I choose safe food.
    (Note: this only works with the risk assessment and management expertise in place to underpin the communication claims).
    Vote for Summer. The latest in defensive statements that won’t work can be found at http://www.meatami.com/ht/display/ReleaseDetails/i/76702/pid/287

  • JC

    yeah, way to go petitioners.. put hundreds of people out of work simply because you don’t understand that ammoniated beef is not a gross or inferior product. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t buy it. Pack your own kids lunch. But no need to put people out of business, especially in this economy.

  • Fred

    Lest we forget — the BOTTOM LINE for all this is the enhancement of BPI’s bottom line.
    They found an industrial way to make cheap, microbially-loaded, cutting floor scraps (including non-meat connective tissue, etc) somehow “edible” — by rendering and treating them with ammonia and marketing the (pink slime) product as “filler” for the burger industry.
    Using low-grade product is very profitable, apparently — a number of BPI’s plants (and employees) were converted (from making dog food??) to this booming new business.
    Now that consumers have finally found out what BPI has been doing (all in the name of manufacturing good food for consumers) — it turns out that people don’t want to buy it, fast food corporations don’t want to sell it — and parents don’t want it channeled into their kids school lunch programs…
    As a result, BPI’s bottom line has suffered. So who is responsible for the laying-off of the employees — the consumers who don’t want to eat low grade products — or the company who quietly switched over their production into the once lucrative new markets??
    Perhaps the bright light in all this are the food safety testing protocols developed by BPI that can find wider application in the meat industry. For them this was totally necessary, however, as using these E.coli-laden scrap products is extremely dangerous.

  • Ruby

    If only it had been real consumers who had ‘voted with their dollars’ to influence BPI. But, of course, it wasn’t consumers at all, rather it was a band of elitist authoritarian thugs exploiting an opportunity to bash ordinary families via social media vandalism. There were said to be a couple hundred thousand “signatures” on this spurious electronic petition (what percent were robo-signers?). There are some 300 million Americans, maybe 100 million families. The “real food” thugs who petitioned would represent, at best, about 0.25% (that’s one quarter of one percent) of “consumers”. Just another case of a few hysterical freaks shouting down the silent majority.

  • mspat

    I find it interesting that BPI thinks that it will succeed in persuading consumers to eat what would otherwise be pet food by “educating” them. More likely they’re hoping the public will forget pink slime and begin using that product again.
    While I appreciate that they apparently are doing a really good job of testing and then waiting for results before putting products into the stream of commerce, this used to be a given. We expected that if a product was called “ground beef” that’s what, and all, that it contained. Not that it was ground beef with added trimmings that had been disinfected and not disclosed. I don’t care how safe the producer can prove this stuff is. I want my ground beef (on the rare occasions when I consume it) to be waste product free. And if these things weren’t ordinarly considered waste to be fed to pets, etc., then why would it need the ammonium hydroxide treatment? No wonder folks are turning away from mass producers’ products. The poor shouldn’t have to eat garbage in order to afford to consume some meat in their diets. I have to say, from here on, I will only eat ground beef that my local butcher grinds in front of me.

  • Thugs…elitists…
    It’s about choice, and it’s about being informed. I guess this is something folks in this comment thread aren’t interested in.
    People have an assumption when they buy that ground beef at the store: that it’s the result of taking a chunk of meat and putting it through a grinder. They had no idea that the meat is mixed with a material made up of scraps (yes, scraps) from other butchering processes that is then brought to a specific plant that heats the scraps (or pressure cooks) to soften or melt the fat, the whole then spun through a centrifuge until most of the fat is spun out, pushed through a small tube, puffed with ammonia hydroxide, and then sent out as cheap filler (and that’s exactly what it is) for stores and restaurants to mix with that material that is basically a chunk of meat push through a grinder.
    No one wants anyone to lose a job, but I’m not going to defend a job if it means that consumers don’t have a choice, and consumers are not being informed about what they buy.
    And frankly, did anyone really expect consumers not to react negatively, once they learned what went into the fast food hamburgers, or the especially in that “fresh ground beef” at the store? Forget the “pink slime” tag–just a matter of fact description of the company’s process is going to turn most people off.
    Did you all think otherwise? Seriously? Did you all think you could hide all this forever?

  • The Farmer

    Instead of cleaning up dogfood to feed safely to people, and importing chicken from china that is killing our dogs, why can’t it go back to the way it should be. Feed the trimmings to the dogs, tell china to keep their contaminated chicken, and let’s get down to the business of why our beef is contaminated with e-coli and every other thing under the sun. If you want safer meats, shut down the big beef feed lots. That is where the contamination comes from in the first place. Cattle are not meant to be fattened up on corn and corn by-products in confinement feed lots that breed the worst e-coli imaginable. Tests show that cattle even in these conditions will shed a large percentage of e-coli in their systems if they are turned back out on grass pasture.
    Interesting that we will go to these lengths to make a bad product safe for human consumption, instead of making cattle healthier to be consumed. If you don’t fix the feed-lots and the major kill plants/processors – you will always have a company inventing these types of manufacturing processes. It is too bad that some have lost their jobs, good for BPI for continueing to pay them, but I doubt they will be able to bring the public back around on this one.
    I have read a lot comments about the price of safe food, and what the poorer population are able to afford, and it is snobbish and awful that our world works that way, but don’t forget how the market works. The more of a demand, eventually there will be a supply to match it, and then the prices will come down. It has to start somewhere. People also have to realize that anything you can buy to eat that is only a buck, is going to cost you thousands in medical bills later. Put down the fancy coffee, and buy some groceries. Cook with your family, and get back to what is real in this world. Know where your food comes from.

  • Allen J. T.

    Naw, Shelly, it isn’t about “choice”, not at all. It’s about preference, pure and simple. Some of you would prefer the rest of us have no choice. Or, if it is about “choice” it is the case you would force your choice upon all of us. Thanks, nanny state elitist thugs! How would we ever get along without your selfish misinformed opinions and your meddling interference and your bullying internet petitions?
    Making this sad fiasco out to be about “choice” is about as lame and disingenuous as it gets. Foodies are evil, pure unadulterated evil. Lowest of the low.

  • Allen, didn’t you mean nanny state elitist pinko commie thugs?
    Oh, darn. I used “pink” in that.
    Choice is what Wal-Mart is doing: you can choose hamburger with the lean textured beef whatever they call it, or you can choose hamburger without. That’s choice.
    Not labeling this product’s use–that’s not choice.
    (Another BPI failure: it’s easier for people to remember “pink slime”, it’s much more difficult to remember “lean finely textured beef”. And the acronym sounds like something you would rub on a wart.)

  • Perplexed

    I’M WONDERING “Allen J.T.” — how one can can even have a preference if they don’t have a choice to begin with?
    Here, BPI is retaining fully 30% of its pink slime manufacturing capacity — so consumers can go to WalMart and purchase same if that is their preference.
    But before, when this industrial process was hidden from view and not labeled in the marketplace NONE of us had ANY choice to then make a preference for or against…
    Hmmmm….. must be the Industrial Food Purveyors who are — “evil, pure unadulterated evil. Lowest of the low” to deny consumers Choice AND Preference…

  • JC

    “pink slime” is 100% beef. 100%! how can it be labeled as anything else? that ammonium hydroxide stuff used to kill bacteria is used in puddings, sodas, baked goods, etc. They don’t label it on there.. because it is being used to treat it and is not an additive. get a grip people.

  • Yes, JC, and high fructose corn syrup and fresh corn on the cob are all “corn”.

  • Tracey

    Ok so they took it out of dog food and wanted to serve it to us?
    Personally I am horrifed! I am horrified and offeneded that they put it in there and didnt label it on the meat when it was sold to the public, I have a great idea for those of you who want to eat it, why dont they can it and label it ‘people food’ i would love to see who buys that crap or better yet put it back in the dog food! Yes its sad so many are out of work right now but get a grip people how is this so different from the grocery store chains or restaurants that bleach meat and then sell it to you? (i have seen it first hand!)

  • P. Goodwin

    Oh, Shelley, you are a flaky fructose fearmonger, too? We might have guessed. Maybe another layer of tinfoil on your hat, there, would calm your phobic outbursts?

  • A. Mace

    I am not a foodie or an elitist. My family is considered lower middle class. I have to use coupons and shop smart to feed our family nutritiously. I expect that if I buy beef, it is beef, not beef by-product. What angers me more is that we are not given a choice. Our FDA does not require strict labeling on our food, leaving many uninformed about the choices they “have”. Misinforming our public, or not informing them at all, takes away that choice. I am glad this has become public information. And as someone stated above, this is truly about $ the company will lose. Do you really think they are so concerned about their employees? Don’t bet on it.

  • thrifty mom

    On a tight budget and purchasing expensive pre-formed beef patties? Do your hands not work? Can’t be nearly as rough as you make it out to be. Go pull someone else’s leg, Sis.