“Pink slime.” Those two words used to conjure up images of the slime river running beneath the sewers of New York City from the 1989 blockbuster film, “Ghostbusters II,” but lately they’ve taken on a new meaning.
“Pink slime” is a media term describing a type of meat used in school lunch programs and restaurants throughout the country, as well as offered in supermarkets.
Although it has been called “pink slime” in the media, the meat industry refers to it as “lean finely textured beef.” In a statement released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), lean finely textured beef is defined as “a meat product derived from a process which separates fatty pieces from beef trimmings to reduce the overall fat content.”
The trimmings are treated with ammonium hydroxide to reduce pathogenic organisms, said Marc Roy, food service director for Warwick Schools. Roy works for Sodexo, which is the food service vendor for the Warwick school district.
After “pink slime” started showing up in newspaper headlines and on TV news stations, many voiced their concerns over its inclusion in school meal programs, and as a result, the USDA, which maintains the meat is safe to eat, announced on March 15 it will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without lean finely textured beef for the next school year.
In an e-mail sent to the Beacon, Roy said, “In response to the opinions and concerns of our consumer base, Sodexo is taking steps to reformulate all hamburger patty products to eliminate the use of ammoniated lean beef.”
Roy said Sodexo contracts to purchase a variety of hamburger patties, many of which do not contain ground beef that is processed with the use of ammonium hydroxide, but said some do.
“Ammonium hydroxide has been evaluated and approved since 1974 by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration for use as a direct food additive in food processing,” Roy said in the e-mail. “Consumer groups such as the Consumer Federation of America and Safe Tables Our Priority have also shown support for this technology.”
He added, “Sodexo’s ISO-certified food safety program includes a rigorous ground beef food safety policy, which includes proper handling and preparation of ground beef.”
Ever since the “pink slime” term appeared, the USDA has gone on the offensive to combat what it considers to be “misinformation” and “a smear campaign” against the meat industry.
On March 28, a joint press conference was held with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, where one of the meat processing plants responsible for lean finely textured beef is located. The plant in Waterloo, Iowa, as well plants in Texas and Kansas, have halted the production of the product, impacting 200 jobs. The press conference was held to dispel negative rumors about the product.
“This product is safe, there’s no question about that. We have said that repeatedly and we’ll continue to say that,” Vilsack said. “A leaner beef product is one of the reasons why we made it a staple of the lunch program because we’re concerned about obesity levels, and this was an opportunity to make sure youngsters are receiving a product that is leaner and contains less fat.”
Vilsack added, historically, lean finely textured beef has been a less expensive product than others.
Roy said school districts across the country may use commodity diversion dollars to purchase USDA-supplied ground beef.
“Warwick, as well as other school districts in Rhode Island, divert commodity dollars to purchase USDA-supplied ground beef,” he said in the e-mail. “The USDA has stated that finely textured lean beef constituted approximately 6.5 [percent] of its total purchases of ground beef in 2011.”
Vilsack said the USDA’s first responsibility is to ensure the safety of food.
“I can guarantee you that if we felt this [product] was unsafe, we wouldn’t allow it to be marketed and make it part of the [school] lunch program,” he said. “Our second responsibility is to listen to our customers, the school districts of the United States, and we did receive hundreds of concerns from school districts across the country, and for that reason, we’re providing those school districts a choice.”
Vilsack said the USDA “is not in the business of mandates.”
While the USDA heard hundreds of complaints, Roy said he hadn’t heard any complaints from Warwick.
According to a USDA press release, “While USDA sets national nutritional guidelines for school meals, school districts make local decisions on what food to feed kids to meet those guidelines. On average, schools in the National School Lunch Program purchase approximately 20 percent of their food through USDA, and approximately 80 percent of food served is purchased directly by schools or school districts through private vendors.”
The release continues, saying, “USDA ensures all food purchased for the National School Lunch Program meet stringent food safety standards, which includes rigorous pathogen testing. Purchase specifications are continually reviewed, microbial test results are evaluated, new food safety technologies are considered, and food safety experts are consulted to determine the adequacy of our food safety requirements.”