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Is it true that 70% of ground beef found in the United States when sold is 30% by-weight ammonia (which is not on the label), and that the beef used is essentially only usable for pet food except for the sterilization by ammonia? If this is not accurate, what is the ammonia content/policy by the US FDA/government and/or major corporations?

I just saw this on Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution last night, and I'd previously seen it referred to in the film Food Inc. The Wikipedia website for ammonia also references the use of ammonia on beef. However, I'm not sure how prevalent the process is.

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    I'm pretty sure the 30% number is completely false, just smell at an ammonia bottle, that much ammonia would be noticeable. But the process seems real, though I could only find it in reference to one company. – Mad Scientist Apr 14 '11 at 6:16
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In doing some research on this topic, I came across a majority of questionable sites who were obviously pushing an activist agenda for one reason or another and whose claims were largely unverifiable or contradictory. Apparently this is an issue where a lot of ideologies converge (animal rights, vegetarianism, anti-corporate, natural foods proponents, anti-chemical/preservative, etc) It was indeed difficult to come up with verifiable, credible information, but I did manage to find some sources.

From what I have managed to find, this question is mainly directed toward the practices of one company known as BPI (Beef Products Inc) which utilizes a controversial procedure to extract lean beef protein from slaughterhouse/meat packing scraps and render it fit for human consumption. This is then sold as filler to beef distributors around the world and is mostly used in ground beef and hamburger. A short breakdown of that process is here. That is all I'm going to say regarding that process, because it could quickly get off topic, this question pertains to the ammonia levels.

During this process, BPI exposes the surface area of its meat to a pH raising gas, which is typically ammonia (but does not have to be). This is done in order to kill microbes or slow their growth. Again, we could go into whether ir not this is an effective process, but that is not the question here.

After some searching I found the actual patenet filed for the process of applying ammonia gas to beef. This is the process apparently used by BPI, the company in question and done apparently to raise the pH of the meat in order to prevent or slow growth of bacteria. The process has also been summarized on a previous version of BPI's web site.

I may be missing something, but I see no way that this process could account for 30% ammonia content of the beef that comes through the process, let alone 30% of the weight of the finished ground beef products with which it is mixed.

Regarding the USDA testing process for ammoniated beef, I have found some links which may prove helpful. Here is one that outlines some of the process, taken directly from the USDA, it includes steps for testing of both ammoniated and non-ammoniated beef. I could not find a definitive limit for how much would be "allowable" and I assume that this is probably due to the fact that ammonia occurs naturally in most meats and proteins, and ammonia levels will change as the meat ages during storage and especially as it spoils due to deamination of amino acids.

However, the most commonly used figures I have found tend to hover around 30mg per 100g of beef

  • @IrrationalPi: Thanks for the added link via the wayback... – Monkey Tuesday Apr 19 '11 at 7:57
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    and even if 30% of their finished product (in weight or volume) were ammonia, such wouldn't be the case of any product it ends up in. If say a beef burger factory used 10% of the stuff and 90% fresh ground beef, that would already dilute the ammonia content of the finished product on supermarket shelves to 3% (which IMO is probably still higher than actual levels). – jwenting Oct 27 '11 at 7:41
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    30mg per 100g could be the source for the 30% quote. It's very easy for non-technical people to just skip the units. – Paula Oct 27 '11 at 9:45
  • When I checked your link, I saw a figure of 3-10mg per 100g rather than a 30mg per 100g. The 30mg per 100g figure where the product became "unpalatable." – Borror0 Jan 31 '12 at 15:03
  • @Paula, especially here in the US where we don't use the metric system :( (I read that as 30g per 100g) – Wayne Werner May 1 '12 at 17:44
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The question seems to refer to Beef Products. As expected, ammonia smells, even in beef. At 30%, it would be overpowering.

But they're indeed using a lot of it. From the same article: "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". That's not yet household ammonia (pH 11.5), but within a factor 30. (The pH scale is based on negative base-10 logarithms to measure the strength of acidity or alkalinity. 10-10/10-11.5 = approx. 31.6)

Perhaps someone failed math there? 1/31.6 isn't 30%, but approximately 3%. Even then, household ammonia is already diluted to about 5% NH3 (the chemical symbol for ammonia), so in total you'd be looking at 3% * 5% = 0.15%.

  • The calculation is more complicated than that due to buffering. And in the NY Times article it is stated that the study used such high pH, but in actual use they had mostly lower pH, which may have not been enough to kill all bacteria. – Mad Scientist Apr 14 '11 at 13:06
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    A lower pH would mean even less ammonia than 0.15%. Buffering would mean more ammonia would be needed (as the buffer donates the H+), but is indeed hard to calculate. – MSalters Apr 14 '11 at 13:54
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Jamie Oliver badly misrepresented the issue. We* made this Meat MythCrusher video featuring an expert, Dr Gary Acuff, to help explain what's really going on.

Remember these facts:

  1. Ammonia and ammonium hydroxide exist naturally in our bodies and in meat.

  2. Ammonium hydroxide is approved in most countries for food processing by agencies like the FDA.

  3. When it is used in beef processing in the U.S., it is done under government inspection, through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is used to make beef safer.

* The American Meat Institute with review by the members of the American Meat Science Association and other experts in the field. - Source

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    I edited this to be more explicit about the claims and the sources of those claims. While I have no reason to challenge Dr Acuff's integrity, I note the source of the video is an industry PR group, and not peer-reviewed research. – Oddthinking Oct 27 '11 at 3:53
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    While Dr Acuff does say "small amount", I heard nothing in this video or on this site that challenges the direct claim in the question of 30% by weight ammonia. – Oddthinking Oct 27 '11 at 3:55
  • why challenge directly such a ludicrous claim? By challenging it you admit you're taking it seriously, which it isn't. Stating the amount is "small" is in itself enough to implicitly challenge the claim of 30% as 30% is far from small. – jwenting Oct 27 '11 at 7:39

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