WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – The idea of “pink slime” continues to breathe life into the conversation regarding federal, state and local standards for ground beef and its contents.
The phrase, coined by former United States Department of Agriculture scientist Dr. Gerald Zirstein, refers to an ammonia-treated product consisting of tissue and beef scraps, used as filler in ground beef.
Last year, internationally renowned chef Jamie Oliver broached the topic of “pink slime” on an episode of his show, “Food Revolution.”
“Everything about this process … is about no respect to food, or people, or children,” he told a crowd of parents and children.
A campaign against the product followed, spearheaded by Oliver, to bring public awareness to its existence.
And though they claim there is no relation, McDonald’s announced early last month that it had discontinued its use of the product.
“For a number of years prior to 2011, to assist with supply, McDonald’s USA used some lean beef trimmings treated with ammonia in our burgers,” an official statement on its website reads. “At the beginning of last year, we made a decision to stop using this ingredient.”
Burger King and Taco Bell reportedly followed suit.
Subsequently, The Daily published a story stating that the USDA uses “pink slime” as part of the ground beef and hamburger patties reportedly served to school children, and that 7 million more pounds of the stuff is on order for school lunches in the coming months.
This product, known formally as Lean Finely Textured Beef – or LFTB for short – has been an approved portion of ground beef by the USDA since the early 1990s. Statistics show that ground beef used by the National School Lunch Program contains around 6.5 percent LFTB.
According to the USDA, LFTB is not purchased directly by them, but rather utilized as a raw material in the parent product of USDA-purchased ground beef.
“All USDA ground beef purchases for the National School Lunch Program must meet the highest standards for food safety,” USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told CBSDC. “This includes stringent pathogen testing and compliance with all applicable food safety regulations.”
Beef Products, Inc., a producer of LFTB, states on its website that the ammonium hydroxide used in its creation is a processing aid included for the safety of consumers.
“The pH enhancement process is an important component of our overall food safety effort,” the website states. “By adding a tiny amount of ammonia (gas) to the beef, we raise the pH in the beef to help kill any harmful bacteria that could possibly be present.”
The USDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) consider ammonium hydroxide to be “generally recognized as safe.”
Additionally, an article published in a 2002 edition of the Journal of Food Protection regarding the addition of LFTB to ground beef concluded that combining the two did reduce what they called “bacterial populations” in the blend, though not on a statistically significant scale.
Some say otherwise, however.
“[G]overnment and industry records … show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat…” a 2009 New York Times article by Michael Moss states. “Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 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 contaminated portions were reportedly separated and discarded before being served to students.
Emily Jackson, who oversees a farm-to-school initiative called Growing Minds for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, noted that foods not provided locally not only deny children access to inherently healthier food, but a deeper connection with their sustenance.
“Focusing on just pure health food hasn’t gotten us very far,” Jackson told CBSDC. “Local food has a face, a story, a connection, a sense that you’re doing something bigger than just nourishing yourself.”
Making the change is easier said than done due to the cost issues in providing locally grown food to educational institutions.
“[A local school official] decided she wanted to get grass-fed beef for her school,” Jackson said. “It cost three or four times more [to do so].”
She added that the economics of the issue play an even bigger role when schools are presented with sharply discounted options that can be paid for with special dollars, especially for schools with a large population of students relying on low-cost breakfast and lunch options.
“After [all other costs], most schools have less than $1 to pay for the actual food that goes on each individual plate,” Jackson said. “The nation doesn’t fund our school lunch program at the levels it needs to be.”
“It’s a pathetic situation with funding – we are drastically under-funding our school lunch programs,” Tom Philpott of Mother Jones told CBSDC. “At the rate [schools have to work with], it does become extremely important to save a few dollars.”
The USDA has said that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is establishing a “zero tolerance policy” for additional strains of bacteria and pathogens.
Added Lavallee, “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.”
And on the buying end, Growing Minds is observing a trending toward local options thanks to both grassroots efforts and federal interest in the matter.
“Consumers want to know where food comes from,” Jackson said. “More and more food from thousands of miles away, such as ‘pink slime,’ is being supplanted by local product.”
As for “pink slime,” however, questions and concerns linger on.
“I don’t think that by eating a hamburger [containing 'pink slime'] that you’re going to keel over and die,” Philpott said. “But I do want to raise the question about exposure to ammonia … is it good for you? Bad for you?”