Schools Will Be Allowed To Opt Out Of 'Pink Slime' Beef
March 16, 2012

Schools Will Be Allowed To Opt Out Of ‘Pink Slime’ Beef

American schools will soon be able to stop receiving the ammonia-treated ground beef product known alternately as boneless lean beef trimmings, lean finely textured beef, and--more derisively--"pink slime," the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) announced on Thursday.

According to Michael Hill of the Associated Press (AP), starting next fall districts will be able to choose to continue receiving 95% lean beef patties that include the filler product, or fattier cuts of ground beef that is free of the ammonia-treated substance. The change in policy cannot go into effect immediately due to existing contracts, an unidentified USDA official told the news organization.

"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," Hill wrote. "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 F 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," he added.

The USDA told Hill that the agency, which is responsible for purchasing about 20% of the food used in school lunches across the country, "continues to affirm the safety" of the boneless lean beef trimmings. However, they said that they wanted to be "transparent" and recognized that schools wanted to be able to opt out of receiving the ammonia-treated lean finely textured beef.

The controversy involves not just the beef itself, but also the use of ammonium hydroxide to treat the meat. The product itself, AFP reporter Robert MacPherson says, is "left-over bits of slaughtered cattle“¦ that is mixed in a centrifuge" -- or as chef Jamie Oliver puts it, according to an article by Amy Hubbard of the Los Angeles Times, "all of the bits that no one wants."

Once the beef products are mixed together, they are treated with ammonium hydroxide in a USDA-approved process in order to prevent E. coli and salmonella contamination, Hubbard said. International Food Information Council Director of Media Relations Steven Cohen told her that the substance had been reviewed and deemed safe by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974, and that it is an additive used in other products, including cheese and chocolates.

However, the Times reporter adds that it is also used as a "sanitizer in many household and industrial cleaners," which has led McDonalds and other restaurant chains to discontinue the use of the so-called "pink slime" beef products. Despite the USDA's announcement Thursday, Hill says that Maine Representative Chellie Pingree has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to immediately and permanently ban its use in schools.

"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,'" the Congresswoman said in a statement.