“Pink slime” is making a comeback: after a huge outcry last year over the U.S. Department of Agriculture buying 7 million pounds of this meat “product” made from processed beef trimmings treated with ammonia, all but three states said they would stop serving it to students. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Care2 members, the U.S.D.A. announced that schools who get their ground beef from the federal government could have the option of buying it with “pink slime,” or without.
This year, a total of seven states are purchasing “pink slime,” possibly (and certainly ironically) because of the new nutrition standards for school lunches. Under new U.S. guidelines, school cafeterias must limit sodium, follow minimums and maximums on calories and increase the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in students’ lunches. These cost more and public schools, many of whom have seen their budgets slashed due to sequestration, have been purchasing “pink slime” again.
Last Year’s Controversy Over “Pink Slime”
Last spring, school districts across the United States rushed to remove what the beef industry calls “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) from the lunches that are served to some 31 million school children every day.
School districts, and parents, had not been aware that some 7 million pounds of meat served up in school cafeterias was coming from remnant scraps of cattle carcasses that had been heated, centrifuged to restore bits of muscle and then treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Once they found out, they didn’t want their children eating it.
Higher Costs of New School Lunch Standards
Due to higher costs per meal under the new school lunch standards, schools can get six cents more per lunch. As Margo Wootan, head of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), tells Politico, that’s not necessarily enough to cover the changes.
Using a highly processed product like LFTB can lower the price of ground beef by about 3 percent. Accordingly, school districts in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas have now put in orders to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for LFTB; last year at this time, only Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota had done so.
Under current U.S.D.A. guidelines, beef products can contain up to 15 percent LFTB before having to note such on the label. Last year, the agency said that manufacturers could voluntarily label products. Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine has actually introduced a bill that would require that products containing LFTB to indicate such on their labels because, as she says,
“As a parent, I wouldn’t want pink slime in my kid’s school lunches, but ultimately that decision is up to parents and school systems. But for anyone to make an informed decision they need accurate information, so I’m glad the USDA has agreed to make sure school systems know when they are ordering meat that has this product in it.”
Students who rely on school lunches for their meals are disproportionately from lower-income families and are therefore the most likely to end up with LFTB on their cafeteria trays.
Is School Lunch Food Safety Being Sacrificed?
Not surprisingly, Beef Products Inc., the largest manufacturer of the product (who has sued ABC News and former USDA officials for defamation after they were openly critical of LFTB) assures us that “pink slime” is “safe, wholesome, and nutritious 100% lean beef.” But CSPI’s Wootan also expresses no issue with the safety or nutrition of LFTB, commenting that “mostly it’s just that parents thought it was gross.”
In Texas, one of the states that is again planning to serve lunches containing LFTB, Bryan Black, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Agriculture, contends that the choice of using this meat product or not in school lunches is a “local decision.”
Plenty of questions remain about the safety of LFTB. After all, major U.S. grocery retailers have been opting not to sell beef products containing “pink slime” and most major fast food chains stopped selling it as of last year.
School districts have to balance their budgets. But it’s regrettable that they should be doing so by offering kids meals with LFTB and all the more at the same time as they are (supposedly) increasing the nutritional content of school lunches. School districts that are planning to serve meals containing “pink slime” are betraying the purpose of the new school lunch standards. Yes, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole wheat items cost more. School districts need to keep the reason behind those new standards in mind — providing students with healthy food — and not try to shortchange children with food of questionable quality.
Photo from Thinkstock