In an article more than three years ago, I first introduced many readers to the concept of “pink slime” and ammonia in meat.

Despite the fact that many years has passed since this was written, not much – or not enough – has changed. While some fast food restaurants have banned “pink slime,” ammonia-laden meat has once again made national headlines. So it is time to run this again and re-start the discussion.

Ammonia and Meat

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story that may shock you if you haven’t heard it already. A story rich in drama, intrigue and cover-ups.

One that involves you, if you eat fast food, and one that involves your kids if they eat school lunches. A story that you should care about even if neither of the above is true. A story that may seem to be science fiction, but sadly, is true; it was reported in the New York Times on December 30, 2009.  It is a story that reflects the current state of food in America and its impact on our health.

Once upon a time, there was a beef processing company called Beef Products Inc. who was, as most companies are, looking to make more money. They wanted to try to find a way to take the fatty meat trimmings that could only be sold for pet food or cooking oil and create a product they could use to enter the hamburger business. But because the trimmings were very susceptible to contamination by E. coli and salmonella, they had to find a way to treat the meat scraps so that they would be safe from contamination.

So they developed a process to treat the meat with ammonia. Yes, ammonia, the ingredient used in your household cleaner which has a warning on the label regarding breathing or ingestion and information about poison control.

Now to be clear, untreated meat has a natural ammonia level that rates about 6 on the pH scale, similar to milk or rain water. But this company found that if they treated the beef with an ammonia process that resulted in changing the pH level to about 10, they could kill the E.coli and salmonella. That is an alkalinity that surpasses the range of most foods.

Pink Slime

So they took their study to the U.S.D.A., who was worried about E. coli and salmonella. One former U.S.D.A. microbiologist admitted that he and several scientists were concerned that no independent validation of safety had been provided. Another, Gerald Zirnstein said the processed beef looked like “pink slime” and went on to say “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

But in the end, the U.S.D.A. not only approved the ammonia processed meat, they were so pleased with the performance of the ammonia process that when they started routine testing of the hamburger meat, they exempted the company, considering their meat safe enough to skip testing.

The Agricultural Marketing Service, the U.S.D.A. division that is responsible for buying food for school lunches, seemed to be a voice of reason. Complaints were made about the smell and a 2002 memo states that they “had to determine if the addition of ammonia to the product is in the best interest of the A.M.S. from a quality standpoint.”

In addition, they stated, “The product should be labeled accordingly.”

A top lawyer and lobbyist for the meat industry argued on the company’s behalf that another company had just received approval to not disclose a chemical used in treating poultry, so therefore this company shouldn’t have to disclose the ammonia. He won.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the ammonia process, considering it safe when used as a processing agent in food.

Making Money from Meat Previously Unfit for Human Consumption

So the company sold its ammonia treated meat to McDonald’s and Burger King and all the other fast food chains, as well as to many grocery stores.

In the end, the school lunch officials overcame their objections and decided to use the meat too because it saved 3 cents a pound off the cost of making ground beef. In 2009, the company sold about 5.5 million pounds of the ammonia processed meat to schools alone.

And so the company, which does not disclose its earnings, generated an estimated $440 million dollars a year in additional revenue from the trimmings previously unfit for human consumption.

And we, as consumers, would probably never have known about this at all, had it not been for a problem.

The ammonia process left the meat smelling pungently of ammonia, even as the company produced a taste test saying that some school children preferred the taste of burgers with more of the ammonia processed meat.

In Georgia, officials returned 7000 pounds of the meat to the company after smelling a “very strong odor of ammonia” in the meat being used to make meatloaf for state prisons. (They did not know about the ammonia process, because it was not on the label, so they assumed the meat had been tainted.) They noted in their complaint, according to the New York Times, that the “level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in the contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.”

The company told the U.S.D.A. that it was safe and that when it was diluted with other ground beef and mixed together, it would be fine. The U.S.D.A. accepted this conclusion, so the company was off the hook.

But others complained about the smell, too.

Beef Recalls

So the company had to do something and it released new research showing that E. coli and salmonella were undetectable at pH levels of 8.5. That enabled it to reduce the level of ammonia and lessen the smell.  So they altered the process to lower the pH level, though they would not reveal to exactly what level.  (Samples that the NY Times collected showed a pH as low as 7.75, below their revised test minimum.)

But in doing so, this left the fatty meat scraps more vulnerable to contamination.

And that is where the company surfaced on the public radar.

School lunch program testing revealed E. coli and salmonella dozens of times in this company’s meat. There were two back-to-back incidents in August 2009 that concluded two 27,000 pound batches were contaminated, but thankfully they were caught before the meat was consumed by school children.

That July, salmonella concerns resulted in a temporary ban of this company’s meat by school officials in Kansas. It was the third time in three years this company’s meat had been banned. But the processing facility remained open and continued to supply other customers (including fast food restaurants and grocery stores) with meat even though they couldn’t sell to schools during that time.

When the NY Times broke the story and presented the U.S.D.A. with the information, top officials said that they did not know what their peers in the lunch program had known for years.

The agriculture department responded and revoked this company’s freedom from routine testing. It also reversed its policy about pathogens: because this beef was supposedly pathogen free, it was not included in recalls, even when it was found in tainted hamburgers!

Food Safety Disconnect — What is Wrong?

While in a way I feel we should cheer that there was a response as a result of the NY Times investigation, it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the various divisions of government and that the lack of communication and knowledge exchange is hindering public safety.

But more than that, I am concerned that we as a public have become too comfortable with scandal and no longer react.

I am not sure what aspect of this story bothers me most:

  • The fact that ammonia is being injected into meat;
  • The fact that the process of injecting ammonia into substandard previously inedible meat makes it then acceptable;
  • The fact that despite no outside substantiation that this process is safe, it is approved;
  • The fact that because it is seemingly safe, it is exempt from any further testing;
  • The fact that this meat is being consumed by school children as part of hot lunch programs in order to save pennies;
  • The fact that government agencies — and branches of the same agency — don’t talk to each other;   (When that happens in corporations, we consider them dysfunctional and they usually don’t stick around long.)
  • The fact that the company continued to sell the meat to other customers even after contamination was confirmed by one customer;
  • That there is no real recourse to be taken against this company and it continues on as before selling its ammonia-laden meat, although now it is no longer exempt from testing;
  • Or that when all of this comes to light, we read it and move on.

Poisoning Children

I have many health conscious friends. When I discussed this with one, he said, “well that is yet another in a long list of reasons why I don’t eat fast food.” And when I said “Yes, but what about your kids eating lunch in school,” he said, “that is yet another reason why I pack their lunches.” I too pack my kids lunches for many such reasons. But what about the kids who are eating there because they are on the subsidized lunch programs or because their parents believe the food they are getting is good or better than what they could come up with on their busy schedules?

Does it not upset you to know this is happening?

His response was that it is no surprise to him that this stuff goes on based on what he knows about the government and the operation of its agencies, especially regarding food. That they represent agriculture and food companies, not consumers.

OK, I know that too. But even knowing that, I still feel we can do better. I still feel outraged that we are allowing substandard food products to replace real food in our diets.

Is this what we want to eat? Is this what we think is best to feed growing children?

Are we ok with food decisions that are made to save three cents because we deem that more important than health and wellness?

It strikes me that it is not dissimilar to the situation in the automobile industry in America. I remember being in a meeting twenty years ago in which there was a discussion over whether saving a half a cent on a screw that would last through warranty (hopefully) was worth it over spending an extra half a cent for the more expensive screw that would last 10+ years.

It took awhile, but car manufacturers finally realized that they needed to take a more holistic view: that there were other costs associated with choosing the less expensive screw. Things changed when the decisions were no longer made solely by those focused on short-term immediate costs: when people began to realize there were longer-term costs that had to be factored in as well.

We need to change the system and fix the broken processes. When will we take a more holistic view of our food choices and realize that while budgets are tight, some savings are simply too costly to justify?

So Why Doesn’t the Government Intervene?

The rationale for using ammonia was to treat the meat to prevent pathogens such as E coli. In the report that follows, however, the focus is on chemical contaminants like veterinary drugs and antibiotics, heavy metals (such as copper, cadmium and arsenic), dioxins, polybrominated diphenylethers (fire retardants), and pesticides with cancelled registrations that remain in the meat. The problem with these chemical contaminants is that not only are they not destroyed by cooking, as E coli is, but they can actually intensify when cooked and become even more harmful.

The report concludes that the various agencies policing our meat supply are not working together to establish reasonable tolerance levels for these contaminants: they are not only not testing for them, they have not even established the appropriate thresholds for any testing safety levels. It appears to be a take off on the Laurel and Hardy skit of “Who’s on First.”

Let’s look at how it is supposed to work. (Bear with me through all the acronyms and initials.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) each play a key role in the process and in addition, they established a joint Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT) and an Interactive Residue Control Group (IRCG) to help reach their program goals.

Each year, the SAT is supposed to call on the FDA, the EPA and FSIS to determine what residues they will be testing for that year. Despite the fact that they convene and form a joint consensus, each year the FSIS continues to only test for one type of pesticide.

The EPA claims that FSIS refuses its requests for additional pesticide testing. The FSIS, however, counterclaims that the EPA has not set the established tolerances for which it is supposed to test so it cannot test for them. (At the same time, it also states it doesn’t have the resources to do the testing.)

For any testing that does occur, the FDA must approve the proper testing methods. However, the FDA continues to make use of antiquated testing methods and has continually      been unwilling or unable to use newer testing methodologies.

The methods employed by the various agencies are often in conflict with each other, which is why the SAT was created to begin with: to help them coordinate and communicate to make it happen. But year after year, no progress seems to be made. The report concludes there is a problem and that improvements must be made. Not surprisingly, this did not make headlines!

In addition, the report indicates that meat plant violations do not seem to concern the FSIS as they should. In 2008, one plant received over 200 violations, but was still allowed to continue operating after the FSIS declared the violations “not likely to occur,”

One of the concerns highlighted is the practice of cow ‘recycling.’ When a dairy cow gets too old or sick to produce any more milk, they are slaughtered and the ‘spent’ dairy cow meat makes it way into our meat supply. This causes concern because of the hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides present within the meat fat of those cows. A 2008 investigation revealed that 90% of the residue violations occurred in plants that process the spent dairy cows.

The same plants also process what is known as “bob” veal, or male calves born to dairy cows. Dairy cows receive large amounts of antibiotics after they give birth to calves to treat and prevent birth-related infections. Dairy producers must wait a certain amount of time before they can sell the antibiotic laden milk for human consumption. So rather than waste the milk, they feed the antibiotic laden milk to the bob veal calves. The drugs never have a chance to leave their systems, and so they remain in the veal meat that is ultimately purchased by consumers. (And if the dairy cow does not recover after birth, she is slaughtered and her meat enters our food supply as well.)

Another concern highlighted in the report is the fact that livestock are now being fed industrial waste that remains after the process of converting corn into ethanol fuel. The remains are known as ‘distillers’ grains.’ The USDA is aware that they are more likely to contain E coli, but they do not choose to regulate the use of distillers’ grains in cattle feed. The ethanol fermentation process requires a lot of antibiotics as well, so those residues also remain in distillers’ grains. In addition, they are laden with mycotoxins, which are linked to an imbalance in pigs called Mulberry Heart Disease, which can cause sudden death.

In the end, because there are no regulations and testing is not being done, this meat ends up in our food supply and the more tainted it is, or the lower the quality, often, the cheaper it is. That makes it more appealing to fast food restaurants, big chain supermarkets, and of course, our school lunch programs where it is fed to developing children who are even more sensitive to the drugs, chemicals, and antibiotics than adults are.

Another section of the report highlighted how the agencies fail to communicate. In one example, the EPA has recently cancelled use of all pesticides containing lindane and will revoke its current lindane tolerance.

The report states “One FSIS official stated that without a tolerance or a zero tolerance if FSIS finds lindane as a residue, it will have no basis for acting to protect the U.S. food supply from unacceptable levels of this pesticide. Another FSIS official disagreed and noted that in the absence of a tolerance (e.g., for lindane) any residue of a pesticide would be illegal and would adulterate the food – making it unnecessary to create a zero tolerance. Regardless of their position, both officials agreed that the agency needed to clarify its procedures regarding the actions agency personnel are to take concerning the disposition of carcasses that contain a potentially hazardous substance where no official tolerance has been established by the FDA or EPA.”

I don’t quite understand how canceling use of all pesticides containing lindane can be considered not establishing an official tolerance level, but that’s why I don’t work for the government!

So what can we do? We continue to hear these stories and maybe we are becoming de-sensitized or we just accept the inability of our government to adequately protect us and our food supply. But there are things we can do.

Support local farmers and CSAs where you can meet and know the producers of the food you are eating and ask them questions about their practices. Educate yourself by reading the reports such as the one below and becoming aware of the challenges faced by our current food practices. Vote with your pocket book, and speak out to your representatives: let them know you care about our food supply and the health of our children and you want something better.

There’s no point reforming our health care system if we are not changing our farming and food policies: let’s get to the cause and not the symptom.  What do you think?

And if you are interested in learning more about how the government monitors its agencies, read the Executive Summary below for a taste.

FSIS National Residue Program for Cattle

Executive Summary

One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers.

In order to safeguard the Nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program. FSIS inspectors sample meat processed through slaughter plants for residue testing and compare the results with tolerances established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent adulterated meat from entering into commerce.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) initiated this audit to evaluate the effectiveness of the national residue program and to assess how well FSIS, FDA, and EPA were coordinating to accomplish the program’s objectives.

Based on our review, we found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce. Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.

To address these serious shortcomings in the national residue program, FSIS, EPA, and FDA need to take steps to improve how they coordinate with one another to accomplish the program’s mission. Recognizing that they needed to work together to prevent residue from entering the food supply, the three agencies established the Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT) and the Interagency Residue Control Group (IRCG) as a way of coming together to communicate and coordinate.

We found, however, that there were a wide range of problems with relying on this process: not all agencies were equally committed to the SAT and IRCG; essential participants were not required to attend; and no one agency had authority to ensure that necessary actions were taken to deal with disagreements. Due to problems with how the SAT and IRCG were established and were functioning, we identified four issues relating to coordination between FSIS, EPA, and FDA.

The three agencies involved need to: 1) expand the substances they test for, 2) improve their methodology for sampling hazardous residues, 3) determine more efficient ways of approving newer methods of testing for drug residues, and 4) collaborate to set tolerances for additional residues.

{If you enjoyed the Executive Summary and want more, you can read the full report at}

To your wellness and health: your true wealth!


Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at

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