by Marion Nestle

Search results: beef ammonia

Dec 30 2009

The latest recall: mechanically tenderized beef

I am, as always, indebted to Bill Marler for his ongoing commentary – often with slide shows – on recalls of foods contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and other nasty bugs.  He offers ongoing comments about the Christmas eve recall of 248,000 pounds of needle-tenderized steaks.

He points out that the recall now affects people in several states and that the meat was intended for several chain restaurants.   The contaminated meat, produced in Oklahoma, has sickened at least 19 people in 16 states.

Mechanically tenderized “non-intact” beef?  Uh oh.  The great thing about intact steak is that harmful contaminants are on the outside surface; the bacteria get killed by the high heat of searing the outside surface.  You don’t have to worry about the safety of intact steak because its insides are relatively sterile.  But if the steak is pre-treated to tenderize it, watch out!  Tenderizing can drive harmful bacteria right into the interior where they won’t get killed unless the steak is thoroughly cooked.

To explain the problem, Marler posts a slide show from Dave Boxrud.  Here is one of Boxrud’s illustrations:

Photo from David Boxrud's slide show on the Marler Blog site

Marler provides links to documents showing that the USDA has received plenty of recent warnings about the dangers of undercooked non-intact beef.  This is no surprise.  In my 2003 book, Safe Food (coming out in a new edition in 2010), I discuss the USDA’s “testing gap” with respect to nonintact beef.  In 1999, the USDA said that it wanted to extend its testing requirements for ground beef to mechanically tenderized beef that might be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

In Safe Food, I explain how the beef industry reacted with “shock, disbelief, and anger” to the USDA’s safety proposal.  One industry representative accused the USDA of taking “another step in this administration’s obfuscation of the impeachment activities.” Those activities, of course, referred to the scandal then involving President Clinton and the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Then, the meat industry’s position was that pathogens were inherent in raw meat, cooking kills them, and testing would put the industry out of business. Ten years later, the industry position hasn’t budged. The Washington Post (December 30) quotes beef industry representatives arguing that mechanical tenderizing poses no particular health problems.

According to Food Chemical News (September 28), Congressional representative Rosa DeLauro (Dem-CT), who chairs the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee, has called on USDA to take immediate action to require labeling of meat that has been mechanically tenderized.

And USA Today (December 30) has produced another long investigative report on the safety of school meals, this one citing plenty of examples of companies that successfully produce or serve safe meat and of countries that do food safety better than we do.  In the meantime, the food safety bill is still stuck in Congress.  Let’s hope that it gets moving early in 2010.

Addendum: The New York Times (online December 30) also is interested in beef produced for the school lunch program.  Its reporters investigated safety problems with beef trimmings that had been injected with ammonia to kill bacteria.    Two things about the beef trimmings are especially interesting.  One person is quoted in the article referring to them as “pink slime.”  And they used to be used for pet foods until meat packers figured out that selling them to USDA for school lunches was more profitable.

As for the ammonia treatment: surely this is not the same stuff used to clean bathrooms?  Apparently so.  But using it is tricky.  You have to inject enough ammonia to kill bacteria but if you do the meat smells like an ammonia-treated bathroom.  If you don’t want the meat to smell, you can’t use as much.  But if you don’t use as much, you get Salmonella. This, alas, is another example of regulations not working.

Congress: pass the food safety bill and then start working on a single food safety agency!

Update January 7: The CDC has posted information on its investigation of this outbreak on its website.

May 6 2012

Tuna scrape: a case study in international food safety

My Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears on the first Sunday of every month.  This one is about safety problems with tuna scrape.

Q: I had no idea that the tuna in my sushi roll was scraped off the bones in India, ground up, frozen, and shipped to California. Is this another “slime” product? Can I eat it raw?

A: No sooner did the furor over lean, finely textured beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) die down than we have another one over sushi tuna. On April 13, the Food and Drug Administration said Moon Marine USA, an importing company based in Cupertino, was voluntarily recalling 30 tons of frozen raw ground yellowfin tuna, packaged as Nakaochi scrape.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations linked consumption of Nakaochi scrape sushi to about 250 diagnosed cases and an estimated 6,000 or so undiagnosed cases of illness caused by two rare strains of salmonella. Among the victims who were interviewed, more than 80 percent said they ate spicy tuna sushi rolls purchased in grocery stores or restaurants.

Scrape refers to the meat left on fish skeletons after the filets are cut off. This is perfectly good fish, but difficult to get at. I once visited an Alaskan salmon packing plant and asked what happened to the delicious looking meat between the bones. The answer: pet food. (Lucky cats.)

A hot commodity

But tuna is too valuable to leave behind, and companies in India use special devices to scoop out the meat, combine it with scrapings from many other fish, chop the mixture, freeze it in blocks, and ship it to importers in the United States. Unlike “pink slime,” tuna scrape is not treated with ammonia or anything else to kill harmful bacteria.

Nevertheless, it is supposed to be safe. The FDA requires producers of imported foods to follow established safety plans. Although the United States imports about 80 percent of seafood sold domestically, the FDA only inspects 1 or 2 percent.

This means we have to rely on the diligence of international food producers in following safe-handling procedures, and of U.S. importers in verifying safety through pathogen testing. But even well-intentioned producers can make safety errors, especially when dealing with high-risk foods.

Tuna scrape is very high risk. Its supply chain is long, complicated and international, leaving many opportunities for contamination. And it is eaten raw.

This tuna scrape came from a single processing plant in India owned by Moon Marine International of Taiwan. Tuna are plentiful off the Indian coast, and the tuna processing industry is expanding rapidly. India has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fish processing facilities, but most are relatively small and their number, size and geographical dispersion make monitoring difficult.

Safe handling issues

The frozen scrape blocks are supposed to be held at subzero temperatures throughout shipping. Even so, they pose a safety risk. They combine the scrapings from many fish. One contaminated scraping can contaminate the entire lot.

And subzero freezing may kill some salmonella, but large fractions can survive, remain viable, and multiply when the blocks are thawed.

Once the tuna scrape arrived in America, I’m guessing it was trucked to Cupertino and from there to retailers and distributors who further trucked them to restaurants and grocery stores. There, sushi chefs thawed the scrape and used it to make spicy tuna rolls.

Tuna scrape is used in supermarket-grade sushi, not the fancy stuff. Sushi used to be – and still is, in places – an art form requiring exceptional skills. In Japan, sushi chefs can train for as many as 10 years to learn how to recognize the freshest, safest and most delicious fish. Sushi served by such chefs is made to order. It is never pre-prepared. It can be breathtakingly expensive.

But in America, sushi has gone mainstream. You can find prepackaged sushi rolls at practically any supermarket or convenience store, at a cost equivalent to hamburger.

Cheap sushi is made with cheap ingredients – hence, Nakaochi scrape – by chefs with far less training. A typical certification program for sushi chefs in this country can be completed in two or three months. Some offer certification online. Although these programs address safe food-handling procedures, the training is necessarily superficial.

What are the odds?

Sushi aficionados argue that while raw fish is never perfectly safe, the safety odds are much better when the chef is well trained, and the fish are freshly caught and cut to order in front of you. By their standards, tuna scrape is suitable only for pet food, which is at least cooked to kill pathogens.

If anything, the tuna scrape outbreak teaches why it is so important to know where food comes from and how it is made. Caveat emptor.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Addition, May 14Bill Marler reports that the FDA “483 Inspection Report” on the Indian tuna processing facility is now available.  Here are excerpts from the most revealing section:

Tanks used for storage of process waters have apparent visible debris, filth and microbiological contamination…There is no laboratory analysis for water used in ice manufacturing at the [redacted] facility to show the water used to make ice is potable…Apparent bird feces were observed on the ice manufacturing equipment at Moon Fishery; insects and filth were observed in and on the equipment…Tuna processed at your facility, which is consumed raw or cooked, comes in direct contact with water and ice.

Apr 11 2012

The legacy of LFTB (a.k.a “pink slime”): power politics in action

The noise about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), commonly known as “pink slime,” is bringing attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. political system—public relations spin, the revolving door, and other aspects of power politics.  Here are some recent examples:

According to the Sioux City Journal:

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a “smear campaign” meant to discredit the Lean, Finely Textured Beef made by a Siouxland company.

“Clearly, this is a safe product, it is a lean product, it helps reduce obesity, and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups who are against it…And you can suspect who they might be — people who don’t like meat.”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News reports that Branstad’s colleague, Steve King (Rep-Iowa) explains how the hearings will work:

Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country…I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.

Perhaps King will call on Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) who has submitted a bill calling for labeling of LFTB. The the Sioux City Journa quotes Branstad’s comments about her:

Pingree is guilty of spreading “bogus misinformation” about lean, finely textured beef along with celebrity chefs and “media elites.”

Pingree should have no trouble explaining why she wrote the bill:

Consumers have made it pretty clear they don’t want this stuff in their food…If a product contains connective tissue and beef scraps and has been treated with ammonia, you ought to be able to know that when you pick it up in the grocery store.

Calling people up before congressional committees is harassment, given how rude congressional committee members typically are to witnesses.

On a lesser scale, Bettina Siegel, the school lunch advocate who initially wrote the USDA to stop using LFTB, has been so harassed by nasty comments on her blog that she has had to set up a filtering system (I’m considering doing the same).

The Concord Monitor reports that USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, the official who approved LFTB for use in school hamburger, was an appointee of President George H.W. Bush and formerly a beef industry advocate.

When Smith left government, she was appointed to the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the maker of LFTB, which paid her $1.2 million over 17 years [actually, she was on the board of IBP, a supplier of BPI].

Republic Report says that Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats.

It’s enough to make anyone start buying organics.

Addition, April 16: Food Safety News has published an excellent timeline on the history of the “pink slime” crisis.

Addition, May 10: Legal scholars weigh in on whether pink slime should be labeled.  No, they say, requiring labeling would violate the First Amendment.

Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.
  • It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”
  • [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

Apr 1 2012

The dilemma of pink slime: cost or culture?

I devoted this month’s (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle to the current hot-button issue, pink slime.

Q: I keep hearing about pink slime being fed to school kids. How could anyone even think about putting something so disgusting in school lunches?

A: Pink slime is the pejorative term for “lean finely textured beef,” a product designed to recover useful bits from carcass trimmings. These are warmed, centrifuged to remove the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and compressed into blocks that are frozen for later use.

The final product is pink; therefore, it’s meat – or so says the meat industry. And from a strictly nutritional standpoint, it is. But from any other standpoint, LFTB creates a dilemma.

For one thing, it solves an enormous problem for meat producers. Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.

LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.

This is the same argument Mal Nesheim and I used in our book, “Feed Your Pet Right.” If American pets were not fed byproducts of human food production, they would need the equivalent of food for 42 million people.

Our readers did not buy this argument. They do not want their pets eating byproducts. They believe their pets deserve food of higher quality. Don’t kids?

A dilemma

Here’s the dilemma. LFTB solves a serious food safety problem. The meat trimmings that go into cheap hamburger are said to often be heavily contaminated with bacteria, some of them dangerous. The ammonia processing makes LFTB safe.

Since LFTB’s introduction, safety officials say they rarely find toxic E. coli in school hamburger.

LFTB’s leading manufacturer, Beef Products Inc., has just announced suspension of LFTB production at three of its four plants. This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.

Under public pressure, some fast food chains, grocery retailers and school districts say they will no longer mix LFTB with hamburger. Walmart will offer customers a choice, and so will the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of Congress have written the USDA, asking, “If fast food chains won’t serve pink slime, why should school cafeterias?”

Calling LFTB “pink slime” presents a massive public relations problem. Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don’t eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible.

LFTB is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious. But it violates cultural norms.

Chef Jamie Oliver proved this with schoolchildren. In one episode of his “Food Revolution,” he made the chicken version of pink slime (white slime?) from bird parts the kids found disgusting. When he formed the slurry into patties, the kids ate them anyway. They forgot about the patties’ origins.

But we are acculturated adults. Once we know how chicken nuggets are made, we might want to think twice before eating them. Now we know hamburger is mixed with LFTB. Do we still want to eat it?

Letter to USDA

School food advocate Bettina Siegel collected 230,000 signatures on a letter to the USDA to ban LFTB. She wrote, “It is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering, and were not considered fit for human consumption.” The USDA buys loads of LFTB for school hamburger because it is cheap. Districts that choose higher-quality meat will have to pay more for meat. Can they afford to?

Of course they can, says my go-to guru for all matters concerning school meals, Kate Adamick. Her new book “Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy” (cookforamerica.com/lunch-money) shows how schools can buy new equipment and better-quality food by creating strong breakfast programs and cooking meals from scratch.

This means that the acceptability of LFTB in supermarket hamburger or school meals boils down to a cultural choice. Even if LFTB is safe, nutritious and tastes like hamburger, it may not be culturally acceptable.

Do we want LFTB in our food? Or do we and our children deserve better? Serving healthy and delicious food is a way to show respect for our culture, food, children and schools, and to invest in the future of our nation.

Perhaps the best solution to the pink slime dilemma is simply to label LFTB as an ingredient. This would give individuals and schools the opportunity to decide for themselves whether culture or cost is the more important value in food choice.

An even better idea: Let’s produce safe meat in the first place.

Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottemiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).