Ammoniated beef has taken a real beating in the media over the past couple years, and now fast-food giants McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King are no longer using it. As veteran journalist Philip Brasher reported over the holidays, the Iowa-based company that manufactures the beef product — at one time used in around 70 percent of American ground beef — has watched sales drop by 25 percent.    

Beef Products Inc. uses an innovative process to turn fatty beef trimmings, which used to go mainly into pet food and other byproducts, into hamburger filler. Because the trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company adds a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bacteria. BPI’s process, progressive food safety policies, and state-of-the art system have received numerous food safety awards and the company has never been linked to a foodborne illness.

But when some consumers find out about the treated beef product — dubbed “pink slime” by a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist — they don’t like what they hear and food companies are taking notice.

In 2008, many American eaters were introduced to the product by Food, Inc, the Oscar-nominated documentary, which portrayed the technology as merely masking a symptom of a bigger problem: the industrial meat system. A year later, a New York Times expose questioned whether the ammonium hydroxide process was really delivering on its food safety promise, which is especially critical considering the product is widely used in the National School Lunch Program.

Last spring, chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver went a step further on his ABC reality show “Food Revolution.” He called the “clever scientific process” shocking and a breach of consumer trust.

Oliver held up raw “inedible” trimmings fit only for “pet food” and put them in a washing machine with ammonia cleaning product to illustrate the BPI process. He also repeatedly called the product “shit.” (That was bleeped out.)

“The supporters of this product would say it’s safe and efficient,” said Oliver to a live audience. “But everything about this process, to me, is about no respect for food, or people, or children, and I’d want to know when I’m eating this stuff. And I’d want it clearly labeled.”

Though Oliver’s show was discontinued last year due to poor ratings, when he blasted ammoniated beef more than 5 million people were watching, according to one estimate. The response on Twitter and the blogsphere was overwhelmingly negative.

McDonald’s and Burger King said their decision to drop BPI beef was not a reaction to the show.

“The decision to remove BPI products from the McDonald’s system was not related to any particular event but rather to support our effort to align our global beef raw material standards,” said Todd Bacon, the company’s senior director for U.S. Quality Systems and Supply Chain Management, in a statement provided to Food Safety News.

Burger King released a similar statement. “The decision to remove BPI products from the BK system is not related to any particular event but rather part of the company’s normal course of business,” the company told the Argus Leader. Taco Bell declined a request for comment.

Industry consultant and blogger Dr. Richard Raymond, former Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, blames Oliver’s show for the move to drop the product.

“This move, although not exactly described as such by the three fast food chains, was because of the ‘ick factor’ as revealed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver,” said Raymond, in an email. “I guess after the two prior attacks, the Oliver video must have been over the top, and it is scary that an activist can potentially take away one of our interventions that makes our food safer. That is not how food safety policy should be determined.”

David Theno, an industry consultant who is credited with revolutionizing Jack in the Box’s food safety program after the 1993 E. coli O157 outbreak, also believes the negative consumer perception of ammoniated beef is bad for food safety.

Theno, who has advised BPI, said he understands why fast food companies are sensitive about their image. “They don’t want to have controversy around their brand names,” he said. “If you ask a technologist they’ll say [ammoniated beef] is the right thing to do … a marketing guy will have a different slant on it.”

“If you don’t want bacteria in your food you have to treat it,” he added. “This is a good ingredient and a very effective intervention. It’s almost like something’s been taken out of the arsenal that shouldn’t have. And as a food safety guy, that bothers me.”

As many in the meat industry have pointed out, ammonium hydroxide is only one of many processing aids or “safe and sustainable ingredients” approved by the government’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to reduce and eliminate pathogens on raw meat products. FSIS has a 52-page list of approved chemicals companies can use to treat raw meat, poultry, and egg products — many of them can be used without any labeling on the package because they are technically considered a process and not an ingredient.

“If consumers and restaurants are up in arms about the use of ammonia and can potentially drive a company out of business by their actions, I can only wonder what they are going to do when they look at the other chemicals in use to try and protect us from foodborne illnesses, chemicals like liquid chlorine and lactic acid just to name a couple,” said Raymond. “There are just certain unpleasant realities of how meat is processed in this country. Those of us with farm backgrounds maybe can accept them a little more readily than someone who has led a life sheltered from these realities.”

The tension between widely used food safety interventions and concern about chemicals in food will surely continue. Recent polling, sponsored by the food industry, suggests consumer confidence in food safety is slipping. At the same time, surveys reveal consumers consistently list chemical and pesticide use in food production as a top concern.

“All new food safety technologies must get through the ultimate filter – and that is consumer acceptance,” notes Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Just like irradiation, a potentially life-saving technology to kill pathogens in meat can still face rejection by consumers, who are anxious to provide the best food for their families. The rise in demand for organic and local foods shows that consumers often go outside pure safety considerations to evaluating where and how the food was produced.”

  • Steve

    Welcome to the Good Food Movement where concerned Eaters are insisting on having a definitive say in the food production practices that are being conducted in all our names…
    So here’s another warning in the consumer rejection of the “pink slime”– which along with irradiation and GMOs is just the tip of of a massive toxic factory food iceberg. While USDA, FDA, EPA et al routinely rubber-stamp agribusiness practices, companies well understand that in their final analysis– consumers don’t have to buy it.
    And Eaters are recognizing that “eating is an agricultural act” and we can vote daily with our food dollars — and our films, our posts and our blogs for a food system that serves eaters — not the industrialized producers who are corporately constituted cut corners to profit by it.

  • Kevin

    I agree with steve here! Good for these fast food giant! They which side their “buns” are buttered! We (being consumers!) don’t want chemicals in our food! And shame on you FSN for defending this practice of selling $H!t and calling it wholesome & safe! Don’t you think there could possible be a link to these practices and the HUGE increase of cancer and obesity in this country? I suppose you think aspartame is a godsend as well! SHAME,SHAME,SHAME!

  • Laura

    To me, and perhaps many others fighting to keep our food system sustainable, healthy, and tasty, the most important piece of this article was the quote from Jamie Oliver, which says: “everything about this process, to me, is about no respect for food, or people, or children”. THAT is the indisputable fact of this horribly unsustainable food system we have. Until we give respect to our animals, our earth, our farmers, and all of our people, we will never have a truly healthy and safe food production system.

  • Joe

    Kevin, I don’t see how FSN is defending the practice. I read this site daily for articles like these. It’s an interesting and important debate. Just because something has less bacteria in it doesn’t mean consumers want to eat it! Ultimately, we have to sell the food to people, and they have a choice in what they buy.

  • Angela

    Consumers starting to be aware of what they are eating and feeding their families is not a bad thing. Making informed decisions has always been the consumer way, and with more taking notice about what is being presented to them is a wonderful thing. After reading the article twice, however, I’m wondering if consumers have a bigger problem with the “pink slime” rather than how meat products are treated to prevent food-borne illnesses. I highly advocate people to read the research done on all types food treatments, handling practices, and other “food substitutes”, and make sure that they understand completely what they read. That is the only way we, as consumers, can make truly informed decisions.

  • Larry Andrew

    I thought the most important piece was the preposterous quote from Dr. Raymond that basically says that us consumers are such simpletons that we will do harm to food safety if we know what is being put in our food and reject it because we don’t want to eat it.
    It is hard to believe that such people can influence government and big company suppliers to keep ingredients hidden from consumers for their own good.
    Larry Andrew

    • Anonymous

      Exactly, know-it-alls like you whine and complain about what you hear about is in your food, so they take it out, then BOOM, new food related crisis on our hands. It is the simpletons that cry “end the pink sludge for all” who really know nothing about it other than they have an ingredient under their kitchen sinks that is vaguely familiar in name, and they want to do away with it. Its awesome and hilarious to see that guy was actually right in his “preposterous” statement. If you find such statements to be “preposterous”, you ARE part of the problem.

  • JR
  • Although I work in the food industry I have to agree with a lot of the comments. How do you describe something as “pink slime”, an “intervention” and “ammonia treated” without conveying the impression-even if it is wrong-that you are taking adulterated product, targeted for dogs, and instead converting it into some kind of meat sludge. Does the industry really think that nobody would a) find out about this or b) care?

  • cf

    I am confused over the headline– “Abandon”
    From 70 % down to 25% is not exactly ‘ABANDONING’.
    I am sad that the Jamie Oliver show was cancelled–
    we need more like him who are willing to stand up and
    present the facts. This is a great loss, since no one else out there is willing ‘step up to the plate’ with the truths.
    Anyone know if this poison ammonia mixture is used in grocery store ground meats?

  • JR

    For those Jamie Oliver fans in the discussion – do you remember this story?
    He does not walk the walk – just a lot of talk

  • BarbG

    What I don’t like is when beef roast’s are portrayed as being raw in the middle in photos. If consumers are actually eating meat dripping with blood no wonder they are being sickened with salmonella. Especially if it is ground meat. As far as meat products are concerned I saw a show last year of how wieners are processed and what goes into most of them. I could not believe the huge chunks of fat from the slaughter plants that goes into the vats. And this is perfectly OK with the government, after I saw that I only buy fat free wieners and I read labels. No wonder there is a epidemic of obesity in this country. If the chunks of fat is treated with this ammonia mixture that would be another reason not to buy this product and many others that use fat as a filler.

  • Jared Strong

    Ammonia treated beef is a wonderful idea on the scale of fast food. Keeping down costs to allow for the dollar menu, or Mc Donalds promotional 35cent burgers was it a while back?, involves serving products traditionally destined for dog food. Why would a consumer expect a 5 star organic grass fed local steak from the dollar menu? Fast food has eliminated squirrel hunting because who is going to take the time to skin a squirrel when the dollar menu is there. The consumer gets what they pay for I’d personally enjoy having the option of safe ammonia treated meat when I’m in an economic position to consider such things rather than have to get a permit to hunt squirrels.

  • Data Doc

    Sad to see people saying ammonia-treatment is for safety, when it is primarily to save money reusing tainted meat. Wake up people and contact a local farmer for meat – what you are buying in the grocery store is killing you. It’s loaded with chemicals, antibiotics, colorants and PCB’s. If you buy local, you get flavorful meat that actually tastes good, and it’s not going to poison you. get to know a REAL farmer today – not the kind of farmer who thinks ammonia is the normal way to preserve meat.

  • japhy

    “If you don’t want bacteria in your food you have to treat it,” he added. “This is a good ingredient and a very effective intervention. It’s almost like something’s been taken out of the arsenal that shouldn’t have. And as a food safety guy, that bothers me.”
    A ‘good ingredient’. But why does it have to be used, again?
    “Beef Products Inc. uses an innovative process to turn fatty beef trimmings, which used to go mainly into pet food and other byproducts, into hamburger filler.”
    To the food industry: Don’t use crap materials in your product that require all that much more processing for something to be and taste edible. Don’t cut corners. And if it costs more? Well, you’re probably saving lives. Even if it is still, in the end, processed fast food, it’s at least a little closer to the source.

  • JR

    To the 4% – “good food” crowd: you continue to display your lack of understanding of both what actually occurs in food production or what needs to happen to feed the world. Here’s a good resource to broaden your perspective –
    As a futher reminder to the organic/local crowd – this web site has repeatedly documented for you that neither local nor organic means safe.

  • Really we don’t need this ammoniated beef and all this fast food!

  • Steve

    JR’s reliance on a white paper espousing the merits of food technology (and the de-merits of organic/ecological agriculture) leaves a lot to be desired — such as truthful substantiation and a viewpoint that is free from blatant conflict of interest.
    The paper is put together by a major agribusiness technologist — Jeff Simmons president of Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly and Company — with the same old, Only-Technology-Can-Feed-the-World argument…
    Problem is — it”s an un-truthful self-serving Agribusiness argument not based in fact. But they’ve repeated it often enough so that (some) people actually believe it…
    For a good look at the whole story go to a recent article in the Atlantic by Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland):
    “Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around.”

  • The fact is, the the “safety” of food depends on your definition of safe. If something is free of bacteria, but eating it causes diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, is it really safe? If something is full of bacteria and promotes immediate and long-term health, is it less “safe?”
    I don’t think people choose organic or local because it’s safer (though it may be), they choose it for arguably more important reasons, such as quality of nutrition, sustainability of the soil and food system, combating food giants and industrialization of food while supporting local economies and producers, and more.
    Besides, even if something is labelled “safe” by whomever claims to be qualifies to determine that, and it tastes crappy or is made of waste products, why is it even on the demoted dollar menu, really? Who wants to eat it, regardless of it’s impressive bacteria count? Why does feeding the world have to mean feeding it garbage?

  • CB

    If we didn’t put our food at risk for pathogens during raising and processing – we wouldn’t need to add chemicals. Just a thought…

  • BB

    Listen, as long as you eat meat, there is going to be risk. Local and organic does not mean it’s safer. We all have a choice and can decide what to put in our bodies. I prefer food that is as natural as possible (unfefined) and produced without chemicals (poison). We have more power than you think. These huge corporations will produce what we demand because all they care about is money. Demand REAL food!!!!!

  • Java Guy

    If you haven’t watched “Food Inc”, take the time to do so. Then if you want to learn more watch: “Forks Over Knives,”. Read “Fast Food Nation”, “Every Twelve Seconds”, “Poisoned” Get educated, get outraged, then take action locally and globally. Change your grocery store habits, make thoughtful restaurant choices.
    Bottom Line is: Consumers have a choice, we do not have to play the victim to the big agro-conglomerates and fast food industry. Workers in these industries have rights as do we the final consumers.

  • Robert Gundel

    Now I’m even more afraid of fast food meat. If they are taking out the ingredient that makes it have LESS bacteria, are they going to find a way to keep more bacteria from being in it?
    I’d rather have my food with plenty of preservatives as well. I don’t understand why anyone would have a problem with irradiation either. Let them get sick once from e-coli and see how quick they change their mind. Everything is rosy until it’s YOU laying in the hospital or dead in a morgue.

  • Carrie

    Frankly, there is an easy way to kill bacteria in meat. It’s called cooking.
    The article mentions this, but the link is broken. Pretty frightening to see how many additives/cleaning solutions, etc. can be used without being labeled at all:
    Eat local and buy local. Look your farmer in the eye and know that what they are selling you is the same food they feed to their families.

  • sheila

    Why cant you just feed us real food…I will pay $4 for a real beef burger, as opposed to the 199 mcdonalds burger…just give me the option of knowing what Im buying and eating…it’s just nasty..I dont want to eat out ever again.

  • Kasey

    SIt was never said that the meat is tainted. It is a high probabilty that meat is tainted with E.coli O157:H7 along with Salmonella, etc. Since there is no way to ensure that each inch of every piece of meat is free of bacteria, there are interventions implemented as a hurdle to decrease the log growth.
    Buying local does not ensure that your meat is wholesome and safe. E. coli spp., Salmonella, Listeria spp., is in the enviornment.
    Cooking will work assuming that every consumer understands and actually takes into consideration that they can still get food poisoning if for whatever reason they undercooked, or didnt clean properly from raw meat to veggies and so on so forth.
    Finally, by removing such interventions which either reduce and/or eliminate bacteria, it makes the food system vulnerable. And then when the general public gets sick the gov’t agencies are under fire for not protecting the food system.

    • Taylor Wilkins

      The only reason we have E-coli problems is because our cows are being fed corn instead of grass. Corn makes their E-coli production speed up which then makes us sick if we eat it. Grass helps get ridof almost 80% of their E-coli which would leave u with a very healthy cow ready to eat. But the fact that companies dont like to spend money on grass seed or anyone to clean up the poop the cows stand in all day makes them sick. Thats like giving a human plastic. We would adapt o it over time but that only fixes obe problem and causes another. Im not saying dont eat meat. Im saying find out whats in it first and how that animal was raised. This way we wouldnt have any problems with E-coli break outs at all

  • Norma S Terrones

    Thank you for putting this on the “internet.” I am sick!!! I heard stories like this when my father worked for the meat packing industry back in the 50’s and 60’s. The least I can do is grind my own meat, like my mother would do. Or am I wishing on something that doesn’t exist when I buy my own cut of meat to grind??? Better yet AMERICANS SHOULD CUT MEAT OUT OF THEIR DIETS!!! Shame shame on our government for allowing this…

  • bthechange

    It is incredible how people chose the better oil or gas for their lux cars, and for our bodies, they choose garbage… they are feeding their bodies with garbage and it is worst, they are educating the new generation with that idea… the idea of eating garbage because it taste good. We as responsable parents, we can not allow that… I care about my family, and I care about my children!!!