Innovation stumbles; perception prompts burger chains to ditch food safety product pink slime
Posted: December 25th, 2011 - 2:18pm by Doug Powell
That’s food safety guru David Theno, who is credited with turning the Jack in the Box burger chain into a model of food safety after an E. coli outbreak in 1993, commenting on the demise of pink slime, also known as ammonium hydroxide.
McDonald’s and two other fast-food chains have stopped using an ammonia-treated burger ingredient that meat industry critics deride as “pink slime.”
The product remains widely used as low-fat beef filling in burger meat, including in school meals. But some consumer advocates worry that attacks on the product by food activist Jamie Oliver and others will discourage food manufacturers from developing new methods of keeping deadly pathogens out of their products.
The beef is processed by Beef Products Inc. of Dakota Dunes at plants at Waterloo, Iowa, and in three other states. One of the company’s chief innovations is to cleanse the beef of E. coli bacteria and other dangerous microbes by treating it with ammonium hydroxide, one of many chemicals used at various stages in the meat industry to kill pathogens.
“Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold at the cheapest form for dogs, and after this process we can give it to humans,” Oliver said in a segment of his ABC television show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, that aired last spring.
BPI, which once boasted of having its product in 70 percent of the hamburger sold in the country, has lost 25 percent of its business. McDonald’s has been joined by Taco Bell and Burger King in discontinuing use of the product, and the company is worried other chains and retailers will follow them.
Lean beef long has been added to fattier meat to produce the blends of hamburger meat that’s sold in supermarkets and restaurants. BPI’s innovation was to develop high-tech methods of removing bits of beef from fatty carcass trimmings that had previously been sold for pet food or animal feed and then treating the beef with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria. Ammonia is used extensively in the food industry and is found naturally in meat. The gas BPI uses contains a tiny fraction of the ammonia that’s used in household cleaner, according to the company.
Theno, who has consulted for BPI, called the process “extraordinarily effective” in making beef safer.
Two years ago, Beef Products Inc. took a fairly public hit when the N.Y. Times and several scientists questioned the efficacy of the company's use of ammonia as an antimicrobial treatment for ground beef.
But in 2010, BPI founder and chairman Eldon Roth announced the company will post on its Web site 100 per cent of its results from the processor's testing for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella.
"We're going to be 100 percent transparent," Roth told Meatingplace in an interview following the announcement. … We're not promising to be perfect, but I will promise that we will be better.”