The people spoke, and they said, "No more pink slime!" And this time, the feds actually listened, kind of.
Last Monday, we told you how the U.S. Department of Agriculture was planning on shipping out 7 million pounds of "pink slime" to be added to the lunches of unknowing urchins at public schools across the country. Pink slime is a concoction of slaughterhouse-floor sweepings blended with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. It is typically added to ground beef, but also to breads, cakes, puddings and other processed foods. With verbal dexterity worthy of Herr Goebbels, the meat industry calls the bubble gum-colored sludge "Lean, Finely Textured Beef."
Parental uproar led to an online petition that quickly gathered more than a quarter-million signatures. School districts also began hammering the government agency. So last Thursday, the USDA announced that districts that get food through the government's school lunch program will be allowed to say no to pink slime and request filler-free meat, the Associated Press reports. Schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with pink slime, or less lean bulk ground beef without it. (Hey, fattier ground beef tastes way better anyway.) However, the pure ground beef won't be available until the fall, so maybe stick to PB&Js till then.
Florida's Miami-Dade school system, the nation's fourth-largest district with 345,000 students, was one of the first to declare it would go slime-free. "Our district has long advocated for purity and disclosure in food products. And we will definitely be moving to the pure ground beef when that becomes available in the fall," district spokesman John Schuster told the AP. In New York City's 1.1 million-student school system, officials said they are working with food vendors to phase out pink slime products.
Tony Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the schools in Memphis, Tenn., told the AP that the 110,000-student district will never use the stuff. He called pink slime "a horrible product" not fit for human consumption.
But Los Angeles is already way ahead of the pack. L.A. Unified School District board member Tamar Galatzan's blog, the Galatzan Gazette, says that David Binkle, deputy director of food services for the LAUSD, informed Galatzan's staff that the district does not purchase USDA beef, period. Via email, he said: "We use 100% all-natural ground beef with no fillers, additives or soy isolates including mechanically separated parts of beef." He said the district's supplier is Lee Farms in Inglewood, with a majority of beef sourced locally.
The Agriculture Department sets national nutritional standards for school meals, but districts make the decisions on what food to serve to meet the guidelines. On average, districts in the National School Lunch Program buy about 20 percent of their food through the USDA, with the remainder coming directly from private vendors. The USDA this year is contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for the program. About 7 million pounds of that is from South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc.., the now-infamous purveyors of the reviled pink slime.
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But even though it is now offering schools a choice, the government agency insists in a (rather condescending) statement: "USDA continues to affirm the safety of Lean Finely Textured Beef product for all consumers and urges customers to consult science-based information on the safety and quality of this product."
So the kids may be all right, but what about the rest of us? With up to 70 percent of ground beef sold in markets containing pink slime, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement that the Agriculture Department should go a step further by requiring the additive to be listed as an ingredient in beef sold in supermarkets. The USDA claims it can't do anything about the lack of labeling and that it's up to the grocery stores to disclose what's in their ground beef, according to ABC News, which offers a handy list of retailers that do and do not mix the stuff in with their hamburger.
One company that has always turned its nose up at pink slime: Costco, whose vice president of quality assurance, Craig Wilson, told ABC News: "Anything that we sell at Costco, we want to explain its origins, and I personally don't know how to explain trim treated with ammonia in our ground beef. I just don't know how to explain that. I'm not that smart."
Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.