The company began using ammonia gas in 2001, with the USDA’s blessing. When the gas hits the water in the meat, it turns to ammonium hydroxide and kills bacteria, the firm said. Through the years, some BPI critics balked at the safety claims and dismissed the meat as a salvage product that does not meet the government’s definition of ground beef.
The New York Times report found that USDA initially did not test BPI’s beef, figuring the ammonia made it pathogen-free. Federal school lunch officials tested it anyway, found E. coli and salmonella numerous times between 2005 and 2009, and pulled it before it was served.
But when the most recent controversy erupted, many rallied to the company’s side.
USDA officials vouched for BPI’s meat. They said it has never been directly linked to illnesses or outbreaks since the government started testing it in December 2009. Of 7,000 samples that BPI provided to USDA school lunch officials in the past two years, none has tested positive for Salmonella or a deadly strain of E. coli, a government spokesman said.
Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has built a business out of suing meat companies, said BPI’s lean beef is safe enough. “It’s not any more or less dangerous than anything else in hamburger,” Marler said.
Nancy Donley’s only child died from an E. coli infection. Yet the consumer activist also stands by the beef product. “It just sounds gross to people, but at the end of the day it’s beef,” she said. “Nothing is 100 percent safe ... but this product is misunderstood.”
Ammonia, BPI’s defenders point out, is a naturally occurring chemical in the body that’s added to other foods. It’s used as a leavening agent in crackers, for instance. Very early in the cheese-making process, a tiny amount of ammonium hydroxide can be added to reduce acidity or encourage cultures to grow.
The American Meat Institute estimates that if the lean finely textured beef disappears, it would take another 1.5 million more cattle per year to offset the loss. Even before the pink slime controversy, the meat industry was struggling. Ground beef sales, including trimmings, fell 11 percent last month to 38 million pounds, a 10-year low for that month, according to a Bloomberg analysis of government data.
The governors of Iowa, Texas and Kansas — home to BPI’s shuttered plants — say this is a lot of hoopla. They recently toured one of the firm’s factories and scolded the news media for hyping the issue. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad accused the company’s critics of launching a “smear campaign.” The threesome even came up with their own catchphrase: “Dude, It’s Beef.”
Then, in front of the cameras, they chowed down on hamburgers.