Food safety is not natural, pure or simple

by Keith Nunes
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This past year has been challenging for the company Beef Products Inc., a manufacturer of boneless lean beef that is used as an ingredient in processed meat products such as hamburger patties, taco meat, chili and sausages. The company’s point of differentiation in the marketplace is the beef it processes is treated with a proprietary process to improve food safety.

But due to negative publicity, the company that once promoted the fact its boneless lean beef is used in the hamburgers manufactured for most of the nation’s major fast-food chains has seen some of those customers tell their suppliers to stop using the Beef Products lean beef. Negative publicity about the company’s process and the use of the compound ammonium hydroxide, a critical component of the process, is at the heart of Beef Products’ recent challenges.

This is distressing, because ammonium hydroxide was designated as “generally recognized as safe” for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration in 1974 and it has been used as a leavening agent in baked foods as well as a way to manage the pH in many types of food products since then. In 2001, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that regulates the U.S. meat and poultry industry, approved the use of ammonium hydroxide as a food safety tool.

Beef Products is not a secretive company. While taking care to protect its intellectual property, the company’s ownership has been upfront about the safety process and the scientific review that went into evaluating its effectiveness as a food safety tool.

Ammonium hydroxide is naturally found in proteins such as beef, pork and chicken. What the Beef Products process does is increase the amount of ammonium hydroxide in the lean beef to elevate its overall pH and make the product inhospitable to the survival of pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. The treated lean beef is then mixed with beef that is destined to be made into a variety of processed meat products that are sold at retail outlets and foodservice institutions.

Critics of the process have offered no evidence indicating consumption of products containing the treated beef is unsafe. They have simply capitalized on the ammonium hydroxide’s technical name and the tendency of consumers to associate ammonia with household cleaners that are harmful if swallowed.

Several prominent food safety authorities have come forward to defend the Beef Products process as both safe and effective. Their concern is twofold. First, they see the use of an effective food safety tool being reduced, and, secondly, they are concerned other companies researching new food safety technologies or programs may curtail their efforts after observing the challenges Beef Products has faced in the wake of the negative publicity.

As the calendar has transitioned from the year 2011 to 2012, a parade of trend researchers making their predictions about what issues will be the most prominent during 2012 have been hard at work. There’s hardly a list of trends for the coming year that doesn’t include increased consumer demand for products that are perceived as being natural, pure or simple.

It is easy to understand why some consumers may demand more food and beverage products that feature ingredients they understand and perceive to be healthier. There is a level of comfort with such knowledge.

But when such perceptions are used to cast a negative light on a process that is proven to be safe and has been designed to protect consumers the issue has extended beyond the boundaries of reason. The situation Beef Products finds itself in is not isolated. Other processes, such as the use of bisphenol A, are also being challenged. Food safety is not a natural, pure or simple process and products will be less safe if effective processes are shunned for reasons that have more to do with perception than science.

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READER COMMENTS (1)

By Andy B 3/17/2012 3:33:08 PM
The safety of ammonia is a straw-man argument. Yes, it is safe and is used in some baked goods. But that's not why people are concerned about the use of "lean beef trimmings". The reason people object to "beef trimmings" is that the butchering process leaves them contaminated with E. coli and Salmonella, at such levels that they *need* to be treated with ammonia (or other anti-microbials) before they're safe to eat. The ammonia is simply used to convert a not-fit-to-eat product into one that is reasonably safe.