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Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce… double the ammonia
A meat processing company with strong ties to Iowa and the Midwest is the subject of a front page investigative report in today’s New York Times.
Beef Products Inc., better known locally by its BPI initials, is taken to task in the report filed by journalist Michael Moss for its use of ammonia to ready otherwise little-used beef trimmings for human consumption. The process, which the company has referred to as “pH enhancement,” was shown by a company-commissioned study and an Iowa State University study to be efficient to kill E. coli and other bacteria that is often present in those specific trimming sections.
“Officials at the U.S. 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 using in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products,” wrote Moss.
In the summer of 2007 one Waterloo BPI plant worker lost her life, another was severely injured and five others suffered minor injuries requiring emergency room treatment when an ammonia leak forced the shut down of the plant and neighboring plants. BPI settled with the Iowa Division of Labor for $648,000 as a result of the incident. A contracting crew working on the ammonia pipes in the plant at the time of the leak was also fined and reached a settlement.
The processed trimmings produced by BPI are used as a component in the hamburgers sold by many of the county’s fast-food giants, including McDonald’s and Burger King. It is also used as a component by grocery stores, the National School Lunch Program and other government agencies, such as correctional institutions.
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. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.
BPI operates plants in Iowa (Waterloo), Nebraska (South Sioux City), Kansas (Finney County), South Dakota (Dakota Dunes) and Texas (Amarillo). The company is headquartered in South Dakota, and was founded by Eldon N. Roth, a man who also has ties to Iowa’s renewable energy sector.