Beef Products Inc. gained a significant foothold in the beef supply industry eight years ago as the government looked for ways to reduce the risk of E. coli-contaminated meat. Beef Products had developed an ammonia-treatment process that won the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for reducing the presence of E. coli to "an undetectable level," reports the Times.
Since then, Beef Products' ground beef - consisting mostly of fatty trimmings engineered into a leaner product - has been a key ingredient in fast food burgers as well as school lunches. In fact, the USDA was so confident in Beef Products' ammonia treatment that they exempted the company from routine testing of ground beef in 2007.
But records show Beef Products meat sold to the national school lunch program were found to contain E. coli and salmonella pathogens dozens of times - three contaminations from E. coli and 48 from salmonella since 2005, the Times reports. In some years, Beef Products rated worse than other suppliers who used traditional processing methods, school officials said.
The company's beef was temporarily banned from school lunches in July but was still approved by the USDA for sale to other customers, revealing a disconnect between the two agencies.
After the Times presented the USDA with the contamination records, officials said they would revoke the exemption from routine testing and conduct a review of Beef Products' research and operation. According to the report, the USDA accepted the company's internal research when it originally granted the exemption.
Beef Products' treatment consists of exposing their meat to ammonia gas, which raises its alkalinity. In further research by the Times, however, the alkalinity levels of the company's beef has gone down, indicating less ammonia is being used in the treatment process.
Beef Products acknowledged lowering the alkalinity but said the treatment is still effective - a claim currently under review by the USDA.