Ammonia processing of hamburger

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The more I look into our industrial food system, the less interested I am in being a participant. There is an article in the The New York Times about questions related to the efficacy of treating beef with ammonia to kill E. coli. Instead of dealing with the real problem, keeping the contents of the intestine from getting on the meat, Beef Products, Inc. came up with a method to gas the meat with ammonia to kill off the E. coli bacteria. And since this method is so effective, according to the USDA, the meat doesn't have to be inspected.

Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed the company’s ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products.

There is just one little problem . . . it doesn't work as well as Beef Products, Inc. and the USDA claim.

But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment.

The meat is tested for the school lunch program, but it hasn't tested for sales to McDonalds, or even to be mixed in with the hamburger you buy from your local supermarket. Even when there were beef recalls in effect, the portion of the hamburger meat coming from Beef Products did not get tested, because they just assumed that it was safe.

When I first started reading the article, I couldn't believe that you could saturate ground beef with ammonia without affecting the taste, much less the nutrition. Of course, industrial food has never really cared about taste or nutrition, they just want to wring every last penny out out of their food-like product production machine. As I read further, it became clear that the taste and smell were affected, and because of this Beef Products started reducing the amount of ammonia they used. I'm so glad that in their infinite wisdom, the USDA and FDA have decided that the companies selling us this modified dreck, don't even have to note it on the label, not even the ammonia that was added.

The article is a fascinating read that I recommend for every meat-eater out there. I don't want to turn you off to meat, just consider whether you want to buy it from the industrial food system. Instead, consider buying meat that is locally raised and processed in small abattoirs.

Just looking at the quantities in a "batch" of meat in the article should give you pause. Fourteen tons of their beef-like goo are removed from 28 tons of trimmings. How many different cows did that come from? Then they mix their goo with ground beef in lots of several hundred thousand pounds to make your final hamburger. If any of those cows are contaminated, the entire lot is contaminated. This related image gives you some idea of how mixed up a preformed burger from your grocery store might be.

When I go down to the farmer's market and buy a pound of ground beef from the farmer that raised the cows himself, I'm getting beef that is mixed from two animals at most, because that is how many they kill a week. The animals are killed and the carcasses are cleaned in a small operation, not a high speed production line, so they have time to clean the meat properly. The processing of the cuts is done at a local butcher, with the surfaces and equipment cleaned before the animals are processed. Everyone handling the meat is local and known to the customers, so they are also answerable to us. Aside from the taste and all the other benefits of pastured meats, isn't the security of knowing how the meat was handled worth a couple extra dollars a pound?