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Engineering a Safer Burger

A small, family-owned business uses pricey technology to produce safer meat, offering a lesson for the $74 billion U.S. beef industry that is struggling to keep dangerous pathogens off American plates.

"It kind of woke us up more," he said. "It made us start looking for a new way."

Roth never went to college and barely finished high school. He learned by doing. After hanging around dairy plants, he developed a fast freezing machine and opened a refrigeration business. That, in turn, exposed him more to the meat business and led to his starting BPI.

Roth was not afraid to experiment, and because BPI is private, he had the freedom to do it without shareholders or Wall Street looking over his shoulder. About 10 years ago, he and his engineers began working with ammonium hydroxide, a food additive already approved by federal regulators for use in processing cheese, chocolate and soda. It also exists naturally in beef. By increasing the level of it in beef, Roth hoped to reduce its acidity and create less hospitable conditions for bacteria.

The challenge Roth and his engineers faced was calibrating the ammonia so that it killed the greatest number of bacteria without affecting the flavor or appearance of the meat. After several years of experimenting, they developed a method that the company still uses. Once the meat leaves the centrifuges, the lean beef passes through a tube the size of a pencil, where it is exposed for less than a second to a tiny amount of ammonia gas. When the gas hits the meat, it combines with water in the meat to form ammonium hydroxide and eliminates any acidity.

The next challenge was making the numbers work. The cost of ammonium hydroxide combined with the other safety measures -- the stainless steel walls, the custom-made pumps -- added up. The price of BPI's frozen lean trim can be as much as 25 percent more than that of the competition, which includes Minneapolis agribusiness giant Cargill.

The sanitation and food-safety measures, though, end up paying for themselves to a degree because the plants' operations are more efficient, allowing them to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since the Jack in the Box incident, major fast-food and grocery chains have been willing to pay a premium for safer meat. The sight of all that stainless steel and the smell of sanitized air helps seal the deal.

"There is no better sales tool than the plant," said John Hayes, a former beef, pork and poultry buyer for McDonald's who heads Processing Innovations, a consultancy in Geneva, Ill.

The plants have even won over some of the beef industry's harshest critics -- people such as Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Safety Institute for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and Nancy Donley, the president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a group that represents victims of food-borne illness. They are self-described fans of Roth and strong backers of his technology-based approach to food safety. Unlike their negative reactions to irradiation and to the use of carbon monoxide to extend the shelf life of meat, they are supporters of Roth's ammonium hydroxide intervention.

Not all consumer advocates are as enthusiastic about Roth's initiatives. Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch has some concerns over plans by a BPI subsidiary, Freezing Machines Inc., to use carbon monoxide in its processing of steaks. His group, as well as STOP and CFA, has objected to the use of carbon monoxide during packaging to make meat retain its color because doing so can make the meat look fresher than it is. But Donley of STOP said she was not as concerned about BPI's plans because the company was using the carbon monoxide in a different way, as part of an anti-microbial treatment. BPI's request to use carbon monoxide is pending with the FDA.

Donley, Foreman and Golodner have also been forgiving of BPI's few blunders, such as its role in a 2002 recall. A logistical problem led to 13 boxes of lean trim that had tested positive for pathogens to be shipped to a customer instead of to a rendering plant. As soon as BPI officials discovered the boxes were gone, they called the customer, which commenced a recall. There were no illnesses associated with the product, although all of the meat was likely consumed. The company didn't get a single ounce back. Since then, positive boxes are segregated in a special warehouse.

BPI's most serious misstep came last August when contractors installing new refrigeration equipment in the Waterloo, Iowa, plant failed to close off a pipe and accidentally began pumping liquid ammonia indoors. An employee, Elizabeth Myers, 44, died as a result. State regulators in December fined BPI $1 million and the contractor $88,000 for the accident. They also cited the company for 34 safety violations, some of which BPI is contesting, said Richard Jochum, BPI corporate administrator. The death of Myers, who had been with BPI for seven years, weighs heavily on Roth. "We wish we could turn back time and keep the accident from happening," he said.

It's that type of human error that he hopes technology can contain, if not eliminate. Where he can, Roth has tried to engineer around the fact that people are fallible. That's why he prefers closed pipes, automated warehouses and even certain job titles. People who oversee BPI plants are called "plant coordinators" and not "plant managers" because he doesn't want them to make too many independent decisions. He and a small cadre of managers keep close watch over all of the company's operations and its 1,400 employees.

He is still trying to build a safer food system with turbines, pumps and centrifuges.

The latest efforts entail making pH-enhanced beef patties for the school lunch program and steaks injected with an ammonium hydroxide-treated brine. Also in the works is a type of lean meat that when blended with other meat reduces the bacteria levels of the entire batch. All of these products will eventually be produced in a new facility next to the plant in South Sioux City. Early estimates put the project's price tag at $400 million.

"Some of the stuff you do you have to believe in," Roth said, "because it doesn't pencil out."

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