Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Houston lawyer Bettina Siegel.
Schools that get their ground beef from the federal government will now have the option of buying it with or without a product that has been dubbed “pink slime.”
Never have schools known whether the ground beef procured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for use in school lunches contained the ingredient, known in the food industry as “Lean Finely Textured Beef.”
Lean finely textured beef is a “product derived from beef-fat trimmings,” researchers at Iowa State University wrote in a report about its use in processed meat. They add that “while it is high in total protein, the LFTB contains more serum and connective-tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat.” Since it’s not made from muscle, it isn’t considered meat by some food experts.
In addition, the product is treated with 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.
In a statement issued today, 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.”
This isn’t the first time the product has come under fire, but fresh concerns about pink slime were raised last week, 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 The Daily he did not “consider the stuff to be ground beef.”
Seizing on that story, children’s food blogger and lawyer Bettina Siegel of Houston started an online petition asking the USDA to stop using ground beef containing pink slime in the National School Lunch Program. In a little more than a week, the petition had collected more than a quarter of a million signatures.
“This is a huge, huge moment for consumers,” Sarah Ryan, a campaigner with Change.org, the site where Ms. Siegel posted her petition, said of the USDA’s action today. “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.
One district in California posted information on its website with a response from its beef vendor, which said it does not sell the district meat made with LFTB.
Some federal lawmakers have also chimed in with letters to the USDA.
“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. “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.”
The meat product isn’t limited to school lunches. The ingredient has been used for years in beef products, including those sold in grocery stores and served by some restaurants.
In defense of lean finely textured beef, Beef Products Inc. has launched a new website, pinkslimeisamyth.com. It includes endorsements about the quality and safety of the product from former U.S. secretaries of agriculture, professors, and consumer watchdogs.
Questions remain about what exactly the USDA’s action means for schools, Ms. Ryan said.
In exchange for having the option of beef products that don’t contain lean finely textured beef, schools could end up paying to get meat processed without it for patties or other items.
Only about 20 percent of the food served in school lunches is procured through the USDA Foods program, formerly called the commodities program. Schools get the items at no cost, although some fees may be charged for storage or distribution of the items.
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 one of food-service directors’ top choices because it is expensive and can quickly eat up limited budgets. Schools pay for the rest of the 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 the company’s lean finely textured beef.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week