Anatomy of a burger: 5 things you don't want to know about beef

What's in your burger? You may not want to know.
Credit: Matt Cardy

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal spreading throughout Europe — which mislead consumers about what animals they've even been eating, exactly — eaters around the world are taking a much closer look at what's under their hamburger buns. 

Though there is a lot of murkiness surrounding the large-scale production of beef, many investigations have already dredged-up some not-so-appetizing facts about the meat supply chain.

Here, we take a look at five facts you may not want to know about processed beef. 

1. It's been hanging out with ammonia. 

Remember the whole "pink slime" scandal that exploded last April?

Well, that slimy texture of ground beef is caused by ammonia hydroxide, a chemical solution used in cleaning products that also happens to be very effective for killing bacteria in fatty beef trimmings that often find their way into burgers, TLC's Planet Green blog reported

"Everything about this process, to me, is about no respect for food, or people, or children, and I'd want to know when I'm eating this stuff," Jamie Oliver, a chef and host of "Food Revolution," said of the practice, CTV News reported. "And I'd want it clearly labeled."

For now, however, it's not. Though major fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald's have sworn off the stuff, the company behind the practice (Beef Products Inc., based out of South Dakota) produces over 7 million pounds of ground beef a week — easily making it the world's largest frozen ground beef producer, according to TLC.

2. It's one of the main culprits behind water pollution. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency is abundantly clear on the effect of beef production, AKA Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs), on the environment. 

Their report on the subject found that AFOs contributes in part to the impairment of at least 170,750 river miles, 2,417,801 lake acres, and 1,827 estuary square miles across the United States.

"Agriculture was reported to be the most common pollutant of rivers and streams," they reported. 

In addition, a study published in the Journal of Animal Science found that it takes as much as 3,682 liters of water to produce 2.2 pounds of boneless beef in the US. 

3. It comes from a lot of different cows. As in, hundreds. 

Ground beef doesn't come neatly from just one cow — modern manufacturing plants receive cows from all across the US and the world, and often churn out 800,000 pounds of hamburger meat a day, BBC News reported

That means that single hamburger could be sourced from tens, even hundreds of different animals — which makes tracking down the source of e. coli outbreaks and other food health emergencies tricky. 

4. It's chock-full of antibiotics — and pumping them into the soil. 

An investigative series by the Kansas City Star, "Beef's Raw Edges," found a lot of issues with beef production in America, to say the least. Among the lesser-known dangers? A sustained overuse of antibiotics, which are leaking into the soil and making us resistant to their effects. 

It has been estimated that 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US are fed to cattle, and their waste is fertilizing plants that then up human resistance to the drugs. 

“We are increasingly treating kids with antibiotic-resistant infections who were at the last antibiotic we could possibly use on them,” Jason Newland, director of the Children Mercy’s antibiotic stewardship program, told the Star. “In the next 20 years will we see antibiotics resistant to everything?”

Ooof, we hope not. 

5. It may have been exposed to radiation. 

After all these e. coli scares, the beef industry has been looking for a way to eliminate bacteria from meat safely. The latest? Irradiation, or the process of exposing beef to gamma rays, X-rays, and electron beam radiation to kill harmful bacteria, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency explained

However, though agencies claim it is perfectly safe (and labels beef that has been treated with a rather alarming radiation symbol), the practice has only been in use for 40 years, and the longterm effects are not yet known. 

Fingers crossed there aren't any? 

Related Stories