Food Safety

Uproar Over 'Pink Slime' in School Lunches

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Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 8:18 AM
click to enlarge Pink slime before it is mixed in with hamburger
  • Pink slime before it is mixed in with hamburger

Remember pink goo? Let us refresh your memory. Pink goo, aka pink slime, is scraps of meat and connective tissue swept up from slaughterhouse floors that are doused with a pink chemical to kill dangerous pathogens -- since they've been, you know, on the floor -- then blended together into a substance that looks like strawberry fro-yo. That chemical is ammonium hydroxide, also used in wood stains, window cleaners, Pine-Sol and Pledge. We'll give you a moment to let that settle in.

Pink slime has been used in ground beef products sold commercially since the 1990s -- the processed meat reportedly accounts for 70 percent of all ground beef consumed in the U.S. (Where's Upton Sinclair when you need him?) It's also widely used as a leavener in bread and cake products. It's regulated by the U.S. Agriculture Department, which classifies it as "generally recognized as safe." Faint praise?

A brouhaha is currently brewing because the USDA sends the stuff to public schools, and currently is planning to ship out another 7 million pounds of pink goo for children to consume. (School cafeterias nationwide receive part of the ground beef they serve from the USDA.) Even McDonald's says it won't use the stuff anymore.

We'd wager even Jane Eyre didn't have to choke down chemical-tainted offal like that at Lowood Institution.

Parents freaked out after reports surfaced last week that school districts around the country were serving kids hamburgers containing up to 15 percent of the processed product known in the meat industry as "Lean Finely Textured Beef" or "Lean Beef Trimmings," produced by Beef Products Inc. An online petition urging the government to stop the use of "pink slime" in school food has collected almost 20,000 signatures over the last several days.

When asked whether the USDA would consider banning pink slime from school meat shipments, spokesman Michael Jarvis told MSNBC: "All USDA ground beef purchases for the National School Lunch Program must meet the highest standards for food safety. This includes stringent pathogen testing and compliance with all applicable food safety regulations. USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce -- and especially into schools -- that we have confidence are safe."

However, according to the online petition, government and industry records obtained by the New York Times in 2009 showed that "in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the USDA about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found three times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunchrooms' trays." Guess they need to add more ammonia!

But let's not forget that little stat mentioned at the top of this post: Pink slime accounts for 70 percent of the ground beef consumed in the U.S. As Dr. Seuss might put it: You too eat pink goo.

Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.

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