A beef filler product, dubbed “pink slime” in recent weeks, has been used in grocery store meats for nearly a decade. The byproduct has also been an ingredient in many school lunch menus, although children and parents were unaware of this fact until fairly recently. Now, the pink slime debate is in full fervor, and school districts nationwide are responding to concerns by doing away with beef filler completely. While this makes some parents breathe a sigh of relief, it is also making some districts dig deeper into their pockets to foot the bill for meat that may be healthier, but is also more expensive.
What is “Pink Slime”?
According to a report at Reuters, pink slime refers to a mix of fatty beef byproducts that were typically reserved for pet food and cooking oil in the past. The scrap meat is mixed with bits of cartilage and connective tissue, and then chemically treated to kill bacteria and make it edible. Ammonia is the chemical of choice, which has many food advocates up in arms about the safety of the product, particularly when it is served to children in schools.
The product was approved for use by the USDA, which dubbed it “lean, finely textured beef.” The agency continues to claim the meat is safe, and the American Meat Institute says it is 98 percent beef. However, those statements are not enough to satisfy many who have been turned off on the idea of consuming beef byproducts in their hamburgers and meatballs, and consumers have called for a ban of the substance from meat sold in grocery stores and served in public schools.
This video from ABC News reports on pink slime.
Gerald Zirnstein was a microbiologist working for the USDA in 2002, when he was assigned the task of identifying the specific substances in ground beef and whether they met USDA regulations at the time. Zirnstein was the first to coin the term “pink slime” in an internal email within the agency. Zirnstein had confronted the USDA about his discovery and was disgusted when the USDA chose to approve the product. He then sent an email to co-workers, describing the substance as pink slime.
“You look through the regulations and a lot of that stuff was never approved for hamburgers,” Zirnstein told Reuters. “It was under the radar. It’s cheating. It’s economic fraud.”
In 2009, while conducting an in-depth report on food safety, the New York Times gained access to Zirnstein’s email through a Freedom of Information request. The email was made public and made such an uproar that many retailers were forced to respond by removing the product from their ground beef packaging. McDonald's and Taco Bell have also banned the product from their beef items.
Pink Slime and Public Schools
Now, the debate has shifted to public school cafeterias. The USDA has been using the beef byproduct in its National School Lunch program for many years. Currently, schools buy approximately 20 percent of their food through the USDA. An online petition was recently started by Change.org to pressure the USDA to begin offering additional meat choices for schools that do not want to offer this beef byproduct to students and staff.
Now, the agency is bowing to the pressure, and it has agreed to provide additional choices in ground beef, so schools can opt-out of including the pink slime in their daily fare. The controversial issue has prompted many schools to trace the sources of their meat and determine exactly where it comes from and what is in it. It has also resulted in a number of school districts choosing to pay a slightly higher price for meat that is “pink slime-free.”
This video reports on how pink slime is used as a filler.
Michigan Saying Goodbye to Pink Slime
Currently, Grand Rapids Public Schools do not serve the pink stuff, according to a report at mLive.com. After tracing the source of their meat to local suppliers, the district learned that the byproduct is not used in the beef they buy. The district will not be purchasing beef from the USDA this year or next, according to district officials.
“Our rationale for this pre-dated the ‘pink slime’ controversy, and was decided upon as an overall effort to secure local products when available, as well as improving overall quality sources,” Paul Baumgartner, director of food and nutrition services for GRPS, told mLive.com.
New York Taking the Filler Out of School Lunches
New York City officials recently announced in the New York Daily News that they will not be including the beef byproduct in their school lunches beginning this fall. The report states that they expect to pay more for an alternative product, although cost estimates for the change are not yet available.
“Although the federal government says this ingredient is safe and does not appear in most of our beef, we have been urging the USDA to allow districts to eliminate it,” Dennis Walcott, chancellor of New York City schools told the New York Daily News. “And we will no longer serve it in public schools by September.”
Colorado Districts Taking Second Look at Beef
Feeling the heat from parents statewide, many Colorado school districts are also taking a second look at the beef they use in school lunches. For example, Boulder Valley School District received dozens of emails from parents wanting assurances the byproduct will not be used in schools. Denver Public Schools also did some checking and discovered that their supplier does not use the filler in its beef.
“We’re not currently receiving beef that has pink slime in it,” Theresa Hafner, DPS executive director of enterprise management food services, told the Denver Post. “Perhaps we were just lucky.”
The battle for more nutritious, healthier fare continues in school cafeterias today, and thankfully, pink slime is one less enemy on the trays of students today.
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