Students’ parents seeing red over ‘pink slime’ beef
School districts soon will be able to opt out of a common ammonia-treated ground beef filler critics have dubbed “pink slime.”
Amid a growing social media storm over so-called “lean finely textured beef,” the Agriculture Department announced Thursday that, starting next fall, schools involved in the national school lunch program will have the option of avoiding the product.
A consultant for the Carson City School District’s food provider, Aramark, said the company is waiting for more information before making a decision.
“We know there’s concern out there,” said consultant Scott Tarrant. “We want to do what’s right.”
Under the change, schools will be able to choose – 95 percent lean beef patties made with the product, or less-lean bulk ground beef that’s made without it. The change won’t kick in immediately because of existing contracts.
Tarrant said it is unclear how the process will work or whether the cost will remain the same.
“The USDA product is inexpensive and helps us manage our nutrition dollars a lot better,” he said. “Their commodity program keeps costs down for parents who have to pay for the meals.”
He said industry officials haven’t had time to react to the outcry.
“As a nation, we’ve been using that product for years,” Tarrant said. “For some reason, it has come to light recently. I don’t think anybody really understands the history behind it.”
Though the term “pink slime” has been used pejoratively for at least several years, it wasn’t until last week that social media suddenly exploded with worry and an online petition seeking its ouster from schools. The petition quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The low-cost ingredient is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated to about 100 degrees and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product, made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., also is exposed to “a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas” to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
The Agriculture Department has affirmed the safety of the ammonia-treated beef as a filler, but said that it wanted to be transparent – and that school districts wanted choices.
The USDA buys about 20 percent of the food served in schools nationwide.
But the opt-out provision doesn’t go far enough for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to immediately ban the product from school lunches.
“The beef industry sent my office an email the other day describing pink slime as ‘wholesome and nutritious’ and said the process for manufacturing it is ‘similar to separating milk from cream.’ I don’t think a highly processed slurry of meat scraps mixed with ammonia is what most families would think of as ‘wholesome and nutritious,”‘ Pingree said in a written statement.
The USDA this year is contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program. About 7 million pounds of that is from Beef Products Inc., though the pink product in question never accounts for more than 15 percent of a single serving of ground beef.
Beef Product Inc. stresses that its product is 100 percent lean beef and is approved by industry experts. The company’s new website, pinkslimeisamyth.com, rebuts some common criticisms of the product (“Myth 4: Boneless lean beef trimmings are produced from inedible meat”).
The National Meat Association also has joined the fight, disputing assertions that the product is made from “scraps destined for pet food.” The industry group also said that ammonium hydroxide is used in baked goods, puddings and other processed foods.
Association CEO Barry Carpenter, who has visited BPI plants and watched the process, said critics don’t seem to have the facts.
“It’s one of those things. It’s the aesthetics of it that just gets people’s attention,” Carpenter said. “And in this case, it’s not even legitimate aesthetics of it. It’s a perception of what it is.”
• Nevada Appeal staff writer Teri Vance and The Associated Press contributed to this report.