By GAP Public Health and Safety Associate Amanda Hitt.

Recent food scares are prompting American consumers to double-check food product labels — not just where items are coming from, but the precise ingredients and chemicals being ingested. But what if the labels are themselves misleading? You would hope this would be illegal, but Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines allow for this every day.

Consumers should be able to rely on the reassuring “100 percent Beef” label on the package when making a purchase. But from the label, you would never know that much of the commercial beef on the market actually contains a chemical commonly found in floor cleaners! Anhydrous ammonia, which appears nowhere on the label, is now being intentionally added to meat by one of the nation’s largest beef distributors.

Beef Product Inc. (BPI) sells its ammoniated product (used in frozen hamburger patties, taco meats, low-fat hot dogs, beef-stick snacks) to major fast-food chains and food distributors as well as the federal Child Nutrition Program.

It’s likely you or a family member has eaten ammoniated beef products already and didn’t know it. BPI uses low-grade beef trimmings (notoriously high in microbial pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, lysteria and staph) and then whirls them in a giant centrifuge until the fat spins off. It then pumps the treated beef full of ammonia to kill the pathogens that flourished during the fat removal process. But not all of the pathogens are reduced and some might even be increased.

Whether or not the ammonia levels threaten human health is arguable. But don’t consumers have the right to know that this treatment adds ammonia to their food?

No, according to the powers that be. In 1973, the Food and Drug Administration, which shares labeling responsibility with the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared ammonia a Generally Recognized as Safe substance (GRAS) on the basis that it is a metabolite found in foods and is safe at naturally occurring concentrations.

It’s one thing to find low levels of ammonia in beef because of natural metabolic processes in cows; it is a different beast altogether when ammonia levels are so artificially elevated that the odor alarms food inspectors. This happened when a Georgia Department of Agriculture meat inspector came across a BPI product, which he reported to the Food Safety Inspection Service as an “adulterated.”

After testing, it was determined that the residual ammonia levels were an “acceptable” 800 parts per million. Given that the USDA has considered products with residual ammonia levels as low as 500 parts per million “contaminated” in the past, it’s unclear what level is now deemed unsafe. BPI’s own Web site acknowledges that “the amount of excess ammonia (i.e., over and above the amount normally produced in the body) that can be safely ingested and assimilated is difficult to define.”

Of course if carbon monoxide — the infamous silent killer — meets the FDA/USDA GRAS standards, it’s little surprise that ammonia would too. Indeed, it’s common industry practice to infuse ground beef with carbon-monoxide gas, which keeps beef red for weeks after it actually spoils, tricking consumers into buying bad meat. And just as with the ammonia-treated product, the label on the package makes no mention that the meat was gassed with carbon monoxide.

Not surprisingly, the food industry lobbies hard to keep it this way. What is surprising is that our government watchdogs aren’t barking. It is the government’s job to inform society of health risks and safeguard against them, not to protect food companies’ marketing secrets.