The ammonia beef saga has taken an interesting twist.

Right before the New York Times published an article questioning the pervasive use of ammonia in beef processing, lawyers at Marler Clark, LLP, a food safety litigation firm based in Seattle, sent a formal request to Iowa State University seeking public records related to the research a University professor did on the safety of ammoniated beef. Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the company that pioneered the ammonia processing technique, has since filed a suit seeking a court order against the university to prevent public records from being released.

bpi-lawsuit.jpgAccording to The Times, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and BPI relied on research from an Iowa State professor to show that the process was effective in killing E. coli and other dangerous pathogens.

“[USDA officials] 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 [BPI],” reported The Times’ Michael Moss. “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.”

“Frankly, I thought the public should know what BPI, the USDA/FSIS, and the beef industry were relying on to serve us the ammonia ‘fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil’,” Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, said on his blog last week. “I would have assumed BPI, the USDA, and the beef industry would feel the same way. Well, BPI did not.”

Denis Stearns, also a partner at Marler Clark, was likewise critical of BPI’s petition for injunction.

“BPI’s attempt to stop the disclosure of public records is as unsurprising as it is questionable,” said Stearns.

“The records that we–and several news organizations–sought, all involve research that supposedly confirmed the safety of ammonia-treated beef trimming, research that was published in a widely disseminated article, and that was partly-funded by the state of Iowa and the USDA,” said Stearns.

BPI’s complaint states that all the work performed by the Iowa State professor, referred to as an “independent contractor,” including “testing, test results, evaluation, assessment, and/or analysis thereof, is proprietary, confidential, constitutes valuable trade secrets of BPI pursuant to law, and any records or documents created as a result thereof are the property of BPI,” and not the university.

BPI asserts that the disclosure of such information would “cause irreparable injury” to the company.

Stearns said BPI’s claim that every single page of the over 1,650 page research document contained confidential trade secrets was “pretty laughable.”

According to Stearns, BPI’s action is unforunate, “The University is now stuck between properly responding to our records request and the threat of a court-ordered injunction.  That leaves it to us to fight on behalf of the public’s right to know.

“Marler Clark has told Iowa State that it would like to uphold its request for the research documents. The firm sent a letter to the university requesting additional information on the documents last week and is waiting for a response.”