Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's in Canadian ground beef?

Some time back, the New York Times did a piece on ammonia being used to make meat and fat trimmings from the cutting room floor safe for human consumption. This ammonia treated meat, some call it "pink slime", is used in the manufacture of ground beef in the States. As I read the article I thought, "Is this stuff in Canadian ground beef?"

Add: This post has been hit thousands of times. It is time for an update. First,  pink slime isn’t used in Canadian burgers – this is the word from Health Canada, which says it hasn’t ruled on the product because no one has asked. 

The other name for pink slime is lean finely textured beef or LFTB. LFTB is made in Canada but it does not use ammonia gas for sterilizing the slush. The chemical of choice in Canada is apparently citric acid.

Read the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations for FTB (Finely Textured Beef). Or, just check the chart I've reproduced below. This stuff isn't pink slime but check out the chart and you will understand why hamburgers have those hard little bits in them. "Bones emerging from separation equipment must be essentially intact and recognizable . . . " Yummy!

The American produced pink slime, made with ammonia, may not be being used in Canada but it is
apparently being shipped to Canada. Beef Products, Inc. states quite clearly on their Internet site: "Outside of the US, Beef Products' customers are located in Canada [bold type added], Mexico, and Japan."

If the stuff is being shipped to Canada but isn't being used in Canadian burgers, where is it going? Maybe it is being used in burgers produced in Canada for shipping to the States. This is just my guess. I want to be clear on that. What do you think?

Some recent Canadian burgers shipped  to the U.S. may have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. These were recalled. 

One must be careful what one says, especially when the stuff one is writing is being read in Canada, a country famous for "libel freeze"the filing of libel lawsuits with the goal of silencing critics. As a retired senior I don't need the hassle.

Recently Jamie Oliver made public calls for fast food restaurants to abandon the use of "pink slime." Possibly because of his involvement and the accompanying publicity a number of fast food restaurants have stopped using the product.

A Huffington Post article reported:

McDonald's announced it is no longer using the controversial ground beef additive known as "pink slime" in its hamburger recipe. Taco Bell and Burger King have also reportedly dropped the "slime" from the menu.

So, what else can I add as an update to this post? Well, read what BPI says on its own website. This info refers to meat sold in the States, of course, and not Canada.

"Beef Products, Inc. [is] the world's leading manufacturer of boneless lean beef. . . . "BPI's products are found in the majority of all ground beef produced in the United States. Current production of over 7 million pounds per week, makes BPI the world's largest manufacturer of boneless lean beef in the world. Eating a hamburger from a Quick Service Restaurant or buying ground beef from your local retailer, the chances are you'll be eating product produced by BPI."

Now, read the company description on Hoovers:

"Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) has ground beef down to a science. A top US provider of boneless lean beef, the company grinds more than seven million pounds of meat a week. Its customers include fast-food chains, restaurants, foodservice operators, meat packers, food processors, and the USDA's school lunch program. Its 60-pound blocks of frozen meat chips are used in hamburger patties, ground beef, hot dogs, beef snacks lunch meat, sausages, meatballs, and frozen entrees. The company touts food safety as a priority. It uses two metal detectors to scan beef before and after processing at its Sioux City, Iowa, manufacturing facility. Outside of the US, Beef Products' customers are located in Canada [bold type added], Mexico, and Japan."

Finally, is there any evidence that ammonia is still playing a role in the production of BPI "boneless lean beef"? The BPI site itself make direct reference to the use of ammonia in the  production of their popular product. BPI has an entire section of their online site dedicated to "The use of ammonia compounds in food processing." I had a link to a Canadian producer who used citric acid but the link is now broken.

As I say in this post, my wife has stopped buying ground beef. She buys large, intact cuts of beef and grinds them herself, with my assistance. It is easy to do, quick and the final ground beef tastes much better than what we had been buying. Plus, it saves us money! The large cuts of beef sell, on sale, for less than ready-to-use ground beef .

This picture was taken by a local farmer. It shows the farmer's wife leading their cattle. The picture was taken decades ago and the farmer dropped out the grey tones with a special film. Today we use Photoshop for this look.

Extra lean ground beef was on sale, my wife saw an ad in the weekly food flyer. But when I got to the store, I hesitated. I asked the butcher behind the counter where Metro got its ground beef. He told me Better Beef in Guelph, Ontario.

I asked him if any of the ground beef came from the States. He didn't know. Some of the meat sold in the London store came from the U.S., he said, but he didn't know where Better Beef got their meat. He admitted it was possible some came from the States but the truth was he simply did not know.

I told the gentleman about the recent New York Times investigation into the safety of ground beef sold in the U.S. I told him what went into the stuff was downright disgusting. Some pretty big companies, I said, were named in the NYT article - companies like Cargill.

"Cargill?" The fellow at the Metro store recognized the name. He thought some of the meat sold in the London store came from Cargill. I had heard enough. I left the meat. I didn't want it. I had questions and I wanted some answers.

I found this package of ground beef in a tube - ground beef in a tube! - in the meat section of the Loblaw Superstore on Oxford St. at Hyde Park Rd. Note the supplier: Better Beef - Cargill Meat Solutions. Meat solutions?

If you haven't read the NYT articles, you should. Learn about the secret ingredient until recently found in McDonald's and Burger King hamburgers sold in the States and in super market ground beef sold everywhere in the U.S. And what is the secret ingredient? Ammonia!

According to the NYT:
"For the past few years, burger makers have been saving money by using filler from Beef Products Inc. consisting of fatty meat scraps often more contaminated than regular meat, to which ammonia has been added to kill the pathogens. Read Michael Moss’s investigation, just not while you’re eating."

And there is a reason why the secret ingredient remains secret and is not listed among the ingredients on the product label. Again, I refer you to the NYT's article.
"One of the toughest hurdles for Beef Products (the company that developed the ammonia additive process) was the Agricultural Marketing Service, the U.S.D.A. division that buys food for school lunches. Officials cited complaints about the odor, and wrote in a 2002 memorandum that they had 'to determine if the addition of ammonia to the product is in the best interest to A.M.S. from a quality standpoint.'

'It is our contention,' the memo added, 'that product should be labeled accordingly.'

Represented by Dennis R. Johnson, a top lawyer and lobbyist for the meat industry, Beef Products prevailed on the question of whether ammonia should be listed as an ingredient, arguing that the government had just decided against requiring another company to list a chemical used in treating poultry."

If you believe, like I do, that leaving ammonia off the label is akin to fraud, you may be pleased to know that we are not alone. A U.S.D.A. microbiologist, "Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef 'pink slime' in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, 'I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.' "

But the United States isn't a Third Word country. We may not like the idea of eating "pink slime" but the food in the States is still safe, right? Maybe not. Read the following from a July 31, 2009, NYT piece on food safety:
" . . . infections may be creeping upward . . .

Roughly 76 million people in the United States suffer foodborne illnesses each year, 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die, according to C.D.C. estimates. Children younger than 4 are sickened by food more than those in any other age group, but adults over age 50 suffer more hospitalizations and deaths as a result of food-related infections."

But about that ammonia, how much ammonia can be in the finished product? Really, isn't this just another scare story? Well, the NYT reports: "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 . . . “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.”

It turns out Beef Products originally liked to keep the ammonia level high as it killed more pathogens. But this high level resulted in a strong ammonia ordour to which buyers objected. They found themselves in a quandary: How best to balance safety, taste and smell.

They have since cut the residual ammonia level but this may increase the chances of bacterial contamination in the final "meat" product. The U.S.D.A. said it determined “at least some of B.P.I.’s product was no longer receiving the full lethality treatment.” Beef Products argues that its process is still effective at the lower alkalinity level.

The founder, owner and visionary behind Beef Products ammonia meat (sludge) treatment process is Eldon N. Roth, who declined requests for interviews when approached by the NYT.
Now, we all know what is in ground beef in the States - ammonia, pink slime, and possibly some nasty pathogens - now, what is in ground beef in Canada?

The butchers with whom I've talked at the grocery stores don't know - or aren't saying. I sure don't feel confident saying what one would find if one could send some Canadian hamburger off to a lab.

Better Beef in Guelph is owned by Cargill Meat Solutions. I find the name "meat solutions" a bit on the Monty Python side of life.

I had a long chat with a former beef producer. He corrected me when I referred to a person working in the meat department of a chain grocery store as a butcher. "They're meat handlers," I was told. They mostly unpack pre-packaged cuts of meat to keep the meat counters stocked.

Since writing this I have not had a hamburger from a fast food outlet or bought hamburger at any chain grocery store. We buy a roast or some other large, solid cut of beef, sometimes from the organic butcher shop in the local market, and then my wife and I grind our own hamburger for chili, etc. We cook the burger we make very well as contaminants on the outside of the meat will be spread throughout the ground beef mixture.


  1. I also want to know, is there ammonia in canadian beef????

    1. Since "pink slime" was being shipped to Canada when last I checked, it seems clear the stuff was in some hamburger being sold here. The question is: What hamburger contained the stuff?

  2. http://fairwhistleblower.ca/content/whistleblower_legends_daniel_ellsberg_frank_serpico
    I watched this the other day the whistle blower who told about the amonia was on it so I looked it up today finding your site. I want to know what is in Canadian ground beef too.

  3. All the more reason to buy from a local butcher shop (local beef) which are becoming sarce... Thanks for your blog, I've been enjoying them. Keep blogging, Karen from Bruce County...

  4. We need to know?

  5. Question.
    I heard that there are elevated levels of ammonia in autistic people. Is there a link between ammonia in beef and rising levels of autism?

  6. Great post btw. I'm sure this pink slime issue will have a few people questioning what type of ground beef they buy.

    I stopped buying seafood, specifically shrimp if it orginated in China after the US banned it in 2009. Seems malachite green was the offender.
    Upon investigation, much of that cheap shrimp we see in CDN supermarkets is actually farmed raised in China, transhipped thru Indonesia, Thailand, and other South East Asian countries.

    Nice uh?

    1. Very interesting. I, too, have read a lot of bad stuff about shrimp farming in the Far East.

  7. it shouldn't be this hard to access information in canada!

    1. You are right, it shouldn't be this hard. Our newspapers, protected by the lawyers they have on retainer, could break the story and spell out all in great detail. Still, read between the lines and the story is fairly clear.

      I read between the lines and I now grind my own hamburger. I haven't bought hamburger in more than a year.

  8. You are right, it shouldn't be this hard. Our newspapers, protected by the lawyers they have on retainer, could break the story and spell out all in great detail. Still, read between the lines and the story is fairly clear.

    I read between the lines and I now grind my own hamburger. I haven't bought hamburger in more than a year.

  9. Read "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser. There is a lot more in ground beef than just ammonia. I hope things have improved in the beef producing business since the book was researched but I doubt it. It makes me not want to eat beef of any type. I looked on a package of hamburgers to see where it was produced and all it said is "prepared for Sobeys, Mississauga". Does that mean it comes from sources they are ashamed to name? Why can't they disclose the source?

    1. They may buy from a number of different suppliers. It is not that they are ashamed, although who knows for sure. Most likely, they just don't make the effort to have unique labels for every source of their meat.

    2. Look for the lot code/manufacturer number, its usually by the expirty date or upc. You can use that to find the manufacturer

  10. develop a trust relatiopnship with your local farmer/rancher and get your meats from them. It's a no brainer

    1. Most areas also have a local farmer's market that can be used. It's easier than going to the farmers directly, though often quite a bit more expensive.

      I actually have little objection to "pink slime" and similar products from a safety standpoint, even though it's gross. What I don't like is the taste.

      I worked for years as a cook, and having tasted both cheap and expensive ground beef (including things like "ground chuck"), there is a massive taste difference between the gross, cheap ground beef and the very expensive stuff.

  11. Apparently ammonia salts are used in Canadian beef, but not ammonia itself. http://wmmdnw.hubpages.com/hub/Does-Canadian-Ground-Beef-Use-Ammonia

  12. Some Beef Products Inc. customers are located in Canada according to the BPI site. BPI as you know is the company that developed the ammonia process in the States. Ammonia is probably not used in Canada as the BPI process is unique. But, since BPI ships its ammonia processed meat product to Canada, I think one might conclude that the stuff is being sold here.

  13. Feed grade urea is made from ammonia and nitric acid, among other things... guess what is getting fed feed grade.

  14. i hauled boxed beef from alberta to every us state for 12yrs ending jun 2011. i hauled boxed beef back to canada 50% of the time...never once did i haul ground beef from us to canada. hauled craploads of groundbeef to usa from canada.

  15. If they called it 'organic meat purity' people probably wouldn't care so much.

  16. Yeah, just slap the word organic on something ane everyone will assume its safe..

    1. I used to work at the local newspaper. I'm quite familiar with the organic butcher shop in our market in the downtown core of town. The ground meat sold there definitely does not contain any "pink slime." It is my knowledge of the operation that gives me this confidence and not the organic label.

  17. I mentioned this on another blog - if you don't want to eat
    "pink slime" the product is sold in the U.S. as "lean finely textured beef", note that it can be processed with either ammonia or citric acid and consists of boneless lean beef trimmings that have passed through a centrifuge. Unfortunately there is also "white slime" (type in meat slurry on wikipedia) which is used to make chicken nuggets.

    Any mechanically separated poultry or meat product COULD be made using this process. The lesson here is find out where your meat comes from. Talk to your butcher. Do research and find out how the chicken nuggets, hotdogs and other products made from trimmings (including some sausages) are manufactured that you're going to eat.


  18. I personally REFUSE to buy any meat that is not clearly labelled a product of Canada.

    And I firmly believe that if the meat handlers in our supermarkets don't write the origin of the meat, then the meat is likely NOT from Canada, and VERY possibly the animals providing those meats were hormone-fed. That's another can of worms...

    SO-O-O, if a supermarket flyer advertises steaks, CDN or USDA
    beef, YOU CAN BET that they are from the US where salaries are lower, therefore the cost to the beef producers is lower which is the reason why supermarket owners buy the American beef: it costs them less to buy than Canadian beef so they can attract customers with lower prices.

    Furthermore, I think the previous bloggers are RIGHT: buy from directly from your local farm or from a reputable butcher.