Student Well-Being

USDA Decides to Let Schools Decide Whether ‘Pink Slime’ Is on the Menu

March 27, 2012 5 min read
A hamburger made from ground beef containing what is derisively referred to as “pink slime,” or what the meat industry calls “lean finely textured beef,” sits on display.

By next school year, schools that get their ground beef from the federal government will have the option of buying it with or without a product that has been dubbed “pink slime.”

Schools that get ground beef through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s foods program, formerly the commodities program, have had no way to tell if it contained the ingredient, known in the food industry as “lean finely textured beef.”

Lean finely textured beef is made with the trimmings from other cuts of meat, such as steaks and roasts, and connective tissue. Because it isn’t made from muscle, it isn’t considered meat by some food experts.

The meat product has also raised concerns for other reasons. The trimmings are subjected to a puff of ammonium hydroxide to kill some strains of E. coli and salmonella bacteria, although a story in The New York Times three years ago raised questions about the effectiveness of ammonia in curbing the spread of E. coli and salmonella.

The USDA announced its policy change on March 15, a little more than a week after a Houston mother and lawyer began a petition on Change.org asking the agency to stop providing meat to the school lunch program containing lean finely textured beef. The petition gathered more than a quarter of a million signatures in a few days.

In its statement, the USDA said that although the product is safe to eat, “due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground-beef products. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without lean finely textured beef.”

After the petition launched, some federal lawmakers quickly chimed in with their support.

“Students enrolled in the school lunch program have little to no choice over what they eat and should not be forced to consume questionable meat,” wrote U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, in a letter to the USDA. “The leftover scraps are treated with ammonia because they come from parts of the cow, often the hide, with high exposure to fecal matter. Despite the addition of ammonia, there have been dozens of cases of pathogens infecting the treated mixture. These troubling reports cast doubt on the USDA’s assertion that this process is perfectly safe.”

Groundswell of Support

This isn’t the first time the product has come under fire, but Houston mother Bettina Siegel’s petition was created after The Daily newspaper published a story in which former USDA food inspectors discussed a 2002 visit to a production facility run by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., which makes lean finely textured beef. Describing what he saw, microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein told colleagues he did not “consider the stuff to be ground beef.”

“I think the reason the petition caught fire is because people care about what we feed schoolchildren, but also because, for many people, this was the first time they were learning about this product and the fact that it’s in, reportedly, 70 percent of ground beef sold in this country—yet not labeled,” Ms. Siegel said.

Beef trimmings like those found in some school lunch meat is also sold in ground beef in grocery stores and some restaurants, although some restaurant chains, including McDonald’s said they will stop using it in their dishes.

“This is a huge, huge moment for consumers,” Sarah Ryan, a campaigner with Change.org, the site where Ms. Siegal posted her petition, said of the USDA’s action. “The USDA is such a huge bureaucracy. It’s hard to make a change.”

Since the recent concerns were raised, some school districts have gotten calls from parents about the contents of beef products served in school lunches.

The 29,000-student Twin Rivers Unified School District in northern California preempted parents’ calls by posting information on its website from its vendors, who said the beef they sell to the district does not contain lean finely textured beef. The district doesn’t get its beef from the USDA, nutrition services director Jill Van Dyke said.

Defending Its Product

In defense of lean finely textured beef, Beef Products Inc. has launched a website, pinkslimeisamyth.com. It includes endorsements about the quality and safety of the product from former U.S. secretaries of agriculture, professors, and consumer watchdog groups.

But it’s not certain whether all districts that want to use ground beef made without lean finely textured beef will be able to. The USDA will survey its vendors to see what the marketplace has to offer. Ground beef made without the product could cost more or require more processing that districts would have to pay for, but the USDA said that is yet to be determined.

The agency said that in the past, the market has changed to meet schools’ demands.

Only about 20 percent of the food served in school lunches is procured through the USDA foods program. Schools get the items at no cost, although some fees may be charged for storage or distribution.

Available USDA foods range from almonds to catfish to sunflower-seed butter. School district food directors can choose from among those items, based on an annual allowance set by the USDA. Meat is a top choice of food-service directors because it is expensive and can quickly eat up limited budgets. Schools pay for other food served in school breakfasts and lunches.

Although beef is a popular item, it’s unclear how much of the beef served in school meals contains lean finely textured beef. Of the nearly 112 million pounds of ground beef contracted for the school lunch program, 7 million pounds, or about 6.5 percent, are made by Beef Products Inc., the USDA said. USDA rules allow no more than 15 percent of a student’s ground-beef dish to be made of lean finely textured beef.

Ms. Siegel, who began the petition, said she spent much of her children’s spring break on issues related to the drive.

“I really owe them for that, but I do hope I’m showing them by example what it means to stand up for something you care about,” she said, “and the power of grassroots organizing.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as USDA Decides to Let Schools Decide Whether ‘Pink Slime’ Is on the Menu

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