One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E. Coli

Anyone who read last December’s New York Times report on beef processing might understandably shudder when watching a child eat a hamburger in a public school lunch room.

That article reported on Beef Products, Inc., a beef processing plant in South Dakota which came up with a method of injecting a mixture of cooking oil and fatty beef trimmings with ammonia (I’m hungry already) to remove E. coli and salmonella.  According to the Times, last year an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the ammonia-treated beef was used in the National School Lunch Program, in part because — big surprise — it’s cheaper than other ground beef.  However, records obtained by the Times showed that the ammonia process, which had been approved by the FDA, did not reliably eliminate the dangerous bacteria.

Perhaps in response to the findings in the Times report, last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced tougher new standards for the ground beef that will be used in the National School Lunch Program, among other federal food programs.  You can read the full press release here. Among the new standards are more stringent testing for E. coli and other bacteria as well as a planned review of the beef purchasing system by the National Academy of Sciences.

All things considered, though, I’d still rather have my child order a cheeseburger — extra cheese and hold the meat.

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  1. Mara says

    That is probably the most repulsive thing I’ve ever heard. I am thankful for the little things like my kids would rather have me pack a lunch than buy a hamburger at school. But truly sad for so many less fortunate children who have to rely on school lunches for their mid day nutrition. It shouldn’t acceptable to any of us that this has been an “approved practice”.

  2. Jenny Johnson says

    Wasn’t it on Food, Inc. that I first learned about the ammonia in beef?
    I believe that movie is PG-13, but I’ve been thinking about showing it to my fourth grader, who recently expressed dismay when I told him about factory farms. He had no idea, and had thought they were all the bucolic farmer-run places he’s seen in kids picture books all his life.

    Any thoughts on showing Food, Inc. to kids?

    • bettina elias siegel says

      You know, only this morning did I make that connection. I wonder if it’s the same supplier? I’ll dig into it. As for watching Food Inc., I actually want to do a mini-post on this, maybe today. Stay tuned.

  3. Mary Lawton says

    I think the ammonia was in the chicken process in Food, Inc. We took our kids to see that film last year when it came out and they were 10 and 12. They loved it, and I think it’s never too early to educate them about what is in food.

  4. Phyllis says

    Bettina, it’s interesting that you would have your child order a cheeseburger “extra cheese and hold the beef” when the CHEESE also has ammonium hydroxide (the PROPER term for “ammonia”) lol. Besides which, the BUN has ammonium hydroxide in it as well…. is nothing sacred?

  5. Phyllis says

    Another thing, you stated that Beef Products is a beef processing plant in South Dakota. THE FACTS ARE: Beef Products, Inc has NO plants in South Dakota. The plants are located in South Sioux City, Nebraska; Amarillo, Texas (yes, YOUR state); Garden City, Kansas; and Waterloo, Iowa (gee, that makes FOUR plants altogether, not just one, as you intimated….).

  6. Phyllis says

    And another thing, ammonium hydroxide has been APPPROVED by the FDA/USDA for use in a variety of foods as a preventive measure against foodborn illnesses caused by bacteria such as e-coli and salmonella. You would question the exhaustive research and testing done by a government agency? hmmmm…

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says


      Your repeated comments about ammonium hydroxide all over TLT in the last few days seem to miss the point. If you’d taken any time to peruse this site, you would know that I have never made an issue of ammonium hydroxide in LFTB. I mentioned the use of ammonium hydroxide exactly once in the petition and that’s it – no scary references to Windex, etc. Indeed, I publicly criticized Jamie Oliver last summer the day after his household ammonia demonstration on Food Revolution. Similarly, I demanded — and obtained — an on-air correction from NPR when it implied in March that I associated on this blog ammonium hydroxide with household “cleaning agents.”

      It seems hard for you to accept, Phyllis, that well informed, rational consumers might object to the unlabeled inclusion of LFTB in ground beef and in school food. But last month’s developments show that is indeed the case.


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