Restaurant chains and beef processors defended their products' safety Thursday after a report that an ammonia treatment thought to kill harmful germs in meat isn't as effective as the industry and regulators believed.
The New York Times reported Thursday, citing government and industry records, that E. coli and salmonella were found dozens of times in testing for the federal school lunch program on ammonia-treated beef from Beef Products Inc. The meat was not served.
A spokesman for Beef Products, based in Dakota Dunes, S.D., said samples mentioned in the report showed traces of E. coli in 0.6 percent of the company's production, while USDA tests found E. coli in 1.03 percent of other beef samples.
"We intend to continue as a leader in food safety efforts," spokesman Richard Jochum said in an e-mail. He said the company's proprietary process that treats beef trimmings with ammonia to kill bacteria is just one part of its safety and testing regimen.
No illnesses have been linked to Beef Products' meat.
Fast-food chains McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Holdings Inc. and agricultural conglomerate Cargill Inc. all use the meat in their hamburgers. All said they'll keep using the meat and that their products are safe.
McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food chain, tests its products throughout the supply chain, said Susan Forsell, vice president of quality systems at the Oakbrook, Ill.-based company. McDonald's said it doesn't plan to change its relationship with the company.
"McDonald's food safety and quality assurance standards are among the highest in the industry," Forsell said.
Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said the company plans to continue to work with Beef Products, whose meat it uses in hamburger patties. He said Cargill does testing beyond standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means requiring certificates that show the meat tests negative for E. coli, along with tests of finished food products.
Burger King uses a "small percentage" of Beef Products Inc.'s beef trimmings in its U.S. hamburgers and does not plan to change that, spokeswoman Denise Wilson said.
She said the company's suppliers must test products themselves and submit them to Burger King-approved labs for more testing.
USDA officials had endorsed Beef Products' treatment and said it destroyed E. coli "to an undetectable level." The agency trusted the method so much that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the public, it exempted Beef Products, the Times reported.
The Beef Products meat has been widely used by restaurants and in products sold in grocery stores. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds last year, the Times said.
Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy said food scares don't usually have long-term effects on restaurants' business. The prominent exception, he said, was a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children and sickened hundreds that was tied to hamburgers served at the Jack in the Box chain. Fallout from that incident cost Jack in the Box millions.
American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley said the association generally doesn't comment on specific companies like Beef Producers. But in an e-mail statement she said nearly 8,000 federal inspectors oversee roughly 6,200 meat plants nationwide, and that human infections from the especially dangerous E. coli strain 0157:H7 have fallen 44 percent since the year 2000.
The report is unlikely to change beef consumption, said Abner Womack, senior economist at the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.
U.S. beef demand for beef has remained relatively constant even amid massive recalls, disease outbreaks and scares over mad cow disease, Womack said.
"We tend to trust, more than any country in the world, the (government) food inspections," he said.
Restaurant stocks were nearly unchanged Thursday in a light day of trading. McDonald's gained 6 cents to $62.95 and Burger King lost 4 cents to hit $18.96. Cargill is privately held.