On beef and ammonia

By Christopher R. Raines

The outcry following the December 30th New York Times article about a certain beef processing method is (I suppose) understandable (given the sparse processing facts presented in the article).  So let’s talk about the process in question — clear up what I think are some of the misconceptions or lingering questions about the process.

Commentary I’ve read is off-base, criticizing the end product’s quality rather than the inspection process that the product seems to (according to the article) lack.  This article is really about the food safety inspection exemption, not the quality of the product (or at least that’s what the article’s title implies).  Some in the Blogosphere and Twitterverse are saying that this ammoniated process can be avoided with grassfed beef (not mentioned is that this process has nothing to do with how cattle are raised or fed!).  The BPI process is not done exclusively to enhance safety; it’s part of a bigger picture all about recovering protein.  And it can be applied to any beef!  Recovered protein like this is what makes $0.99 packages of hot dogs and $1 double-cheeseburgers possible — we all can’t afford higher quality stuff.

Here’s a quick run-down of what happens (summarized from the BPI web site):

  1. Fatty trimmings are obtained from a meat plant
  2. Trimmings are ground up, then chopped up further
  3. pH tweaked, ammonium hydroxide formed
  4. Protein goes one way, fat goes another (and the fat makes for primo glycerin or biodiesel substrate)
  5. What’s left is very lean beef protein
  6. That beef can be used in beef products like hamburger patties (likely at low levels)

(Added 1/3/10: The Process as described on the BPI site)

The quick version: protein and fat are separated in conjunction with a pH tweaking process and lean protein is recovered.

The article questions the process itself.  That’s not the food safety question.

To me, the food safety question should be:  Q – Why was USDA this product given a testing exemption (we’re talking about pathogenic bacteria now, not ammonia)?  A – Because the company supplied research supporting the product’s safety (when produced with original, higher levels of ammonia, according to the article).  Some may go so far as to assume (based on the content of the article) that the basic processing method has to be done because its the only way to “kill” bacteria.  Not totally true – there are many ways to kill bacteria.

In my view, the process is simply a utilitarian way to safely recover the most beef protein possible.

As an aside, but related: beef carcasses and trimmings (inclusive of those not destined for the BPI process) are almost always treated with an acid solution (as per USDA requirements) to kill any lurking ill-doers (since it is impossible to slaughter an animal and obtain a sterile carcass).  This applies to “conventional,” grass-fed, natural or organic beef.