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.”