04/06/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

Has LFTB Really Been in Our Beef for "20 Years" and Without Incident?

Yesterday's press conference held by Beef Products, Inc., attended by no less than three governors, two lieutenant governors, and the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was a masterpiece of crisis management. I'm still working my way through the raw footage -- you can view it yourself in real time here.

But even without having seen the entire event, one factoid from the press conference (and disseminated in earlier beef industry communications) is now getting a lot of play in the media: that lean, finely textured beef, or so-called "pink slime," has been in our food supply "for 20 years," with no apparent harm to the consumer.  Here's just one such use of this fact, in a statement released by South Dakota Governor Dennis Dougard:

"Lean finely-textured beef is a 100 percent beef, 95 percent lean, nutritious, safe, quality and affordable beef product eaten by Americans for 20 years."

As I've articulated in many posts, but perhaps most succinctly in this one ("My Response to Beef Industry Defenses of 'Pink Slime'") there are many reasons to oppose the undisclosed use of this cheap filler in our school food and our food supply without even discussing food safety. But if food safety is of concern, that fact -- 20 years in our beef with no harm done -- is pretty compelling.

The only problem is, it's not true.

Michael Moss, the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about the beef industry and food safety, wrote an extensive article about Beef Products Inc. and LFTB in 2009. The very first sentence of his article makes clear that the controversial ammonium-hydroxide-based process which creates LFTB been only been in use since 2001:

"Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia."

Moss goes on to describe how Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, experimented throughout the 1990s with various methods for treating slaughterhouse scraps before hitting on the combination of heating, centrifuging and treating with ammonium-hydroxide, a process USDA and FDA only approved around 2001:

One of Mr. Roth's early trials involved running electricity through the trimmings to kill bacteria... Mr. Roth eventually settled on ammonia, which had been shown to suppress spoilage. Meat is sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed -- all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.

The treated beef landed in Washington in 2001, when federal officials were searching for ways to eliminate E. coli...

Mr. Roth asserted that his product would kill pathogens in untreated meat when it was used as an ingredient in ground beef -- raising the prospect of a risk-free burger. "Given the technology, we firmly believe that the two pathogens of major concern in raw ground beef -- E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella -- are on the verge of elimination," Mr. Roth wrote to the department.

The Food and Drug Administration signed off on the use of ammonia, concluding it was safe when used as a processing agent in foods.

So, assuming Moss's article is factually correct (and assuming BPI was not selling this substance without governmental approval), the filler which is the subject of so much controversy has not been in our food supply for "20 years."

But what about that claim by BPI and its supporters that the use of this filler has been without incident?

Again, Moss"s article indicates otherwise. In the early years of selling LFTB, BPI encountered complaints from schools and prisons about ammonia in the product:

As suppliers of national restaurant chains and government-financed programs were buying Beef Product meat to use in ground beef, complaints about its pungent odor began to emerge.

In early 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to Beef Products after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a "very strong odor of ammonia" in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings, state records show.

"It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia," said Dr. Charles Tant, a Georgia agriculture department official. "I've never seen anything like it."

Unaware that the meat was treated with ammonia -- since it was not on the label -- Georgia officials assumed it was accidentally contaminated and alerted the agriculture department. In their complaint, the officials noted that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.

As a result, according to Moss, BPI made a decision internally to lower the amount of ammonium hydroxide used in LFTB, despite the fact that USDA had approved its process only when higher levels of the chemical were used:

The Beef Products' study that won U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods. The company's 2003 study cited the "potential issues surrounding the palatability of a pH-9.5 product."

Soon after getting initial approval from the agriculture department, the company devised a plan to make a less alkaline version of the beef, internal company documents show. Beef Products acknowledged in an e-mail exchange that it was making a lower pH version, but did not specify the level or when it began selling it.

Thereafter, according to Moss, the safety of LFTB was compromised:

... 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 three 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.

In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella -- the third suspension in three years, records show.

What might have happened had that contaminated meat had actually reached our children's school lunch trays, given that children are far more vulnerable to harm from food-borne illnesses than adults?

The bottom line is that the raw material used to create LFTB is, by its very nature, inherently pathogenic due to its likely contact with cow excrement.  That is precisely why BPI's innovative ammonium-hydroxide process revolutionized the market -- and has reportedly earned the company "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

But that's also the reason why, when we eat LFTB, we are putting tremendous faith in BPI's process. There can be no human or mechanical error, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2009, when two 26,880 pound lots of LFTB tested positive for E. coli and salmonella, respectively, BPI first blamed the incident on a broken nozzle that had failed to spray ammonium hydroxide for a mere 60 seconds:

In addressing the latest contamination cases in Nebraska, Beef Products said it suspected a glitch in its treatment operations, referring to ammonia gas by its chemical name, NH3, according to an e-mail message to school lunch officials.

"The system was stopped for two minutes in order to install a new valve," the company said. "When the system was restarted, there was product flow for approximately one minute without NH3 flow."

Similarly, while I have given BPI due credit for leading the industry in testing for the so-called Big Six strains of E. coli, it's notable that in Germany last summer, 45 people died and almost 4,000 were sickened by a previously unknown strain of E.coli -- a strain which by necessity would not be part of BPI's testing.

So when you hear that LFTB trimmings have been used "for 20 years" without incident, be skeptical. And keep in mind the words of Eldon Roth himself, quoted in the Moss article:

"Like any responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect."