Hamburger Helper? Slime, Ammonia and Cow Shit

In our ongoing series “There’s WHAT in My Food?”, we submit for your reading pleasure (though probably not while you’re eating) our comments on a stunning New York Times investigation that exposed how an ammonia-treated beef filler used in 50% of the nation’s ground beef (possibly up to 80%, according to one industry source) has repeatedly been found contaminated with deadly e. coli and salmonella, despite claims that the ammonia-bathed product would actually eliminate the harmful bacteria.

Meat maker Beef Products Inc (BPI) created a product the beef industry loves. Prior to BPI’s innovation, the slimiest, nastiest slaughterhouse scraps were used primarily for pet food (while the fatty bits were rendered for various oil-based food and non-food products). But in the late 1990’s, BPI began experimenting with ways to take these dirty, feces-stained scraps and turn them into, well, dirty, feces-contaminated burger filler.

In 2001, they came up with the answer. Since slaughterhouse trimmings from the outside parts of the carcass have higher loads of fecal matter (yes, cow shit), and hence higher loads of disease-causing bacteria, BPI needed a way to make their product edible enough to pass as “safe” meat, without going through expensive de-shittifying processes. BPI’s solution involves grinding the meat into a gruesome pink slime, then dowsing the slime with ammonia and blast freezing the whole slimy, shit-filled mess.

Most people know ammonia as a common household cleanser. Who knew it was also a ground beef filler? (It’s a floor cleaner! No, It’s a ground beef filler! Wait a minute: our pink slime is a floor cleaner AND a beef filler!)

Studies paid for by BPI have shown the efficacy of their process for killing bacteria, demonstrating that the high-alkaline environment created by the ammonia bath followed by blast freezing successfully eliminated threats from pathogens. The company even claimed that adding its product to other ground beef would kill any bacteria in the mix (a bold claim, since the company’s own studies found no such significant effect).

A new product was born, and meat byproducts were lucratively rescued from the dog food bowl and put directly onto our plates.  The company’s lobbying was so successful that government regulators allowed ground beef suppliers to use the filler without labels indicating that the beef contained added ammonia, so consumers would never know what they were eating.

Except in some cases: in 2003, Georgia prison officials returned 7,000 pounds of BPI’s filler, after prison cooks complained about the strong ammonia smell. One Georgia agriculture department official told the Times, “It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To mask the odor and taste, it appears BPI started lowering the ammonia load. Problem is, less ammonia means more bacteria survive the process, resulting in a beef filler containing both shit and its attendant disease-causing microbes.

Still, following USDA approval of the products, officials at the USDA-run federal school lunch program began buying the BPI product for use in our nation’s schools. Because who better to test this risky new meat process on than our nation’s children?

USDA was so confident of the safety of the BPI product that it exempted the company from USDA bacterial testing requirements in 2007. Apparently no one from the USDA meat testing program talked to the folks at USDA’s school lunch program: the lunch ladies had already been testing BPI’s product, and the findings were disturbing: since 2005, BPI’s products tested positive for E. coli three times, and for salmonella forty eight times.

Still, the school lunch program continues to use BPI’s product: last year 5.5 million pounds were served to our nation’s school kids. USDA staff told the Times that buying the cheap meat filler saves $1 million a year – or about .01% of the lunch program’s annual $8.1 billion budget.

Because again, why wouldn’t we want to save .01% of the budget by experimenting on our kids with a potentially deadly, shit-filled former pet-food product?

But it’s not only school kids who are unwittingly eating the BPI filler. Cargill, one of the country’s biggest suppliers of ground beef to institutions and retailers, is a major buyer of the BPI product. Other big buyers include McDonalds and Burger King. Fast food customers are likely eating even more BPI filler with their burger: school lunch officials originally allowed its ground beef to include up to 10% of the BPI sludge meat, but later increased that to 15%. In fast food and other outlets, one industry source states the level as “typically” between 15-25%.

Of course, in response to the Times expose, these responsible companies immediately announced they’d stop selling burgers stretched with the BPI-ammoniated shit slime.

We wish.

In fact, the companies staunchly defended serving shit-filled, ammoniated beef to unwitting customers. McDonalds said its “food safety and quality assurance standards are among the highest in the industry” (a sad but likely true indictment of the fast food industry’s standards).

Just once, in response to documented reports that its product is putting our kids’ health at risk, we’d love to hear an industry say, “We will change. The health ands safety of the children and families who buy our products are our highest priority. We are sorry we let you down. We will change.”

Instead, we get: Take this shit and eat it. Or don’t. We don’t care about you or your kids. History has shown that we can poison you and get away with it, so why shouldn’t we. We will never change.

Those who continue to eat ground beef products should know that packaging instructions on proper cooking to kill potentially lethal bacteria lurking in the burger have proven inconsistent and inadequate to protect health. That’s why we recommend avoiding ground beef altogether, especially for kids, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems (since these groups are most susceptible to deadly outcomes from food poisoning).  If you must have burgers, ask your supermarket meat department (or better yet, a small, local butcher or natural beef producer) if they have meat from companies who refuse to use BPI’s filler (you can also get a nice quality steak and grind your own burger in a food processor or kitchenaid grinder).

In the too-little-too-late department, USDA has recently announced it has withdrawn BPI’s testing exemption, although the agency has not said when it would begin testing the company’s products. Meanwhile, BPI has filed suit to keep secret company-funded safety studies on the meat slime that were conducted by scientists at Iowa State University.

But BPI wasn’t always so secretive: after winning a 2004 food industry “Food Quality” award for the safety and quality of its products, the company was feted by one of the judges for their approach to sharing safety information: “They sponsored research and also published and shared the findings with their competition. They showed that food safety isn’t a competitive issue.”

Translation:  eat shit, America.

Comments Closed

12 Comments

  1. PJ Johnson
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This is a great article. It makes understanding the confusing (and smelly) landscape of shitty food easy to read and understand (but not digest). Thank you.

  2. Ammon
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Anhydrous ammonia is a naturally occuring substance, in fact the average human body produces several grams of the stuff every day. There are around 2 billion metric tons of naturally occuring ammonia present in plants animals and in the atmosphere around us at any one time. One of the main properties of ammonia is the fact that it is very volatile, and boils off at -28°f at atmospheric pressure, and leaves no residue behind. However, while it is present, it has the property of being quite caustic with a ph rating of 14+. Bacteria cannot survive high ph environments, thus its effectiveness at killing them.

    I am not in the meat industry, nor do I sell ammonia, but am involved with it in other industries and have become very familiar with it over the years. When it is used as a refrigerant, it has a global warming potential of 0 and an ozone depleting potential rating of 0, making it by far the most environmentally friendly refrigerant used. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly chemicals and is widely used in many other areas of industry. Yes, it smells bad, and can be toxic in atmospheric high concentrations, but once a person is informed about it and respects it, these factors become relatively minor.

  3. Moriah Cohen
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    We appreciate comments, but it’s nice if folks can stick to the subject. Our post is not “anti-ammonia”; we’re sure the substance has many fine uses (floor cleaning, fertilizer, and bomb-making, to name just three). To review: we object to a company dowsing our food with ammonia, without labeling, in a process that years of testing shows does not eliminate bacteria (as it claims to), for the purpose of feeding us cheap, shit-filled hamburgers. Those who wish to defend the company and its dubious practices are welcome to continue eating at McD’s. The rest of us will continue to assert our right to know what’s in our food.

  4. Heather
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Good grief. Shocked. I know a lot about our food – but this is something I just found out after watching Food Inc. Had to look into it a little more and found this article. Good heavens above. Seriously? Horrible. What about meat we get at the grocery store?? That’s the one thing I’m confused on. We are transitioning over to grassfed meats – but I’m still using up the meat in my freezer (about 8 lbs of hamburger meat from Kroger left) – can’t financially afford to throw it out – but not sure if I can eat it if it has this in it. How do I find out??

  5. Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Heather, thanks for the comment. You can ask at Kroger if their supplier uses the BPI filler. Sadly they are not obliged to label the product, but the supplier may tell the store, so it’s worth a try. Good luck!

  6. Meghan McIntosh
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Great article. I do have to say….red meat is linked to colon cancer….I wonder if there is a correlation?

    Makes me glad my kids and I never eat processed red meat if we eat red meat at all – which is rare.

    Thanks for the info Sarah

  7. Jim
    Posted May 24, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I am not at all shocked at this article.
    I am truly disgusted with the way these major corporations are processing food in this country. Im even more disgusted that the mainstream media does not shove this down our throats like they do Tiger Woods affairs. Americans need to wake up, cows are not suppose to eat corn, all the hormones and chemicals they pump into cows, chickens etc are, in my belief the cause of the illnesses we have now-a-days. i have transitioned off of supermarket meat and have found a local farmer who does not raise livestock like the major corporations, grass fed beef, free range chickens and such. I have also eliminated using prepackaged meals (hamburger helper and the like) from my home, basically I’ve taken it back to old school, from scratch my Nanna would say. I just can not find the courage to eat something that has more ingredients than I can pronounce. Food Inc is a very good movie and I encourage everyone to see it. As for fast food, its out of the question for me anymore, I’d rather starve.

  8. Jack
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Is ground buffalo meat free of BPI filler?
    Thanks

  9. Posted July 19, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I would think it highly unlikely that buffalo meat producers are using BPI’s filler, but your best bet might be to ask your supplier. Let us know what you hear back!

  10. Jack
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Whole Foods Market has ground grass-fed beef, as well as ground buffalo meat. The butcher there flatly denies that there is any “ammonia” in ANY of their meat – but I don’t think this guy knows what I’m talking about when I ask him about BPI filler …

    I love a good burger, and would appreciate any reliable advice about where and what to buy, in terms of safe, clean meat …

    Thanks – you guys Rock …

  11. Moriah Cohen
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Jack -
    sorry for the delay; we contacted Whole Foods about their ground beef, here’s their reply:

    Hi Charles,

    Thank you for contacting Whole Foods Market with your question. We grind fresh ground beef in our stores daily. No fillers are added to any of the ground beef sold in our stores.

    Best regards,

    Rachael

    Rachael Gruver | Global Customer Information Specialist | Whole Foods Market | 550 Bowie Street | Austin, Texas 78703

  12. Greg
    Posted October 14, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I stopped eating meat to lose weight. Then, I watched Food Inc. Now, I will never eat meat again unless I kill it myself which, looks like it would be a lot of work. Thanks for posting stuff like this. I like to google for articles like this one just to help keep my integrity. Hopefully, more people will catch on, wake up and realize the destination of the path we are following. Keep up the good work!

11 Trackbacks

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  2. [...] Signature dishes: Homeroom serves mac and cheese made with local, sustainable ingredients; McDonald’s serves burgers made from beef that may contain as much as 25% of an ammonia-doused, feces-drenched filler . [...]

  3. [...] I wrote about some of the highly questionable practices in the beef industry, a colleague asked me if my kids eat fast food burgers. No, they don’t, I answered; in fact, I [...]

  4. [...] Hamburger Helper? Slime, Ammonia and Cow Shit [...]

  5. [...] our gonads off we tried to limit the length of our stay, but we did take a moment for round two of dollar menu ammonia slime-injected, feces riddled, beef cow pies. They taste even worse when they’re cold and 12 hours off the shelf. I suppose I should be [...]

  6. By “Beef-Filler” « 2012memories on September 30, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    [...] Photo Courtesy of generationgreen.org [...]

  7. [...] beef from the supermarket, make sure they grind it in front of you from a whole piece of meat. Hamburger Helper? Slime, Ammonia and Cow Shit | Generation Green – the consumer action wing of the C… Reply With Quote   + Reply to Thread « Previous Thread | [...]

  8. [...] http://generationgreen.org/2010/02/hamburger-helper-slime-ammonia-and-cow-shit/ [...]

  9. [...] “shitty” meat, literally.  Check out the article I read when researching this topic HERE.   Pink slime is basically meat waste product or scraps that are discarded as a part of processing [...]

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  11. [...] first looked at the pink slime burger controversy in 2010; this year, a school lunch petition renewed calls to end the use of the nasty burger [...]