Ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to buy seven million pounds of beef byproducts for use in the national school lunch program has made the news, there has been a rare public outcry, not often heard of in connection with food policies in this country.
“Pink slime,” which consists of low-grade beef trimmings, cartilage, connective tissue and other less than appetizing animal parts, ground up, chemically disinfected and pressed into a paste-like substance that can be used as meat filler, has been included in our ground beef supply for decades. According to a report by ABC News, 70 percent of ground beef sold in supermarkets in the U.S. contains these additives. Only certified organic meat is guaranteed to be without.
Meat Fillers May Be Safe to Eat
But They Have No Place in a Healthy Diet
The USDA has declared “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) – a more palatable term for “pink slime” – to be “generally safe” for consumption and does not require it to be labeled separately. In other words, unlike almost all other additives, including preservatives and artificial coloring agents, meat fillers don’t have to show up on ingredients lists or nutrition facts labels.
Since meat mixtures are more predisposed to E. coli and salmonella contamination than higher quality cuts, they are treated with a pathogen-killing chemical called ammonium hydroxide, which gives it the pink color. The company that sells ground beef treated with ammonia, Beef Products Incorporated (BPI), considers LFTB not only to be safe, but also nutritious and perfectly suited for school children to eat.
“Including in the national school lunch program’s beef products accomplishes three important goals,” said BPI spokesperson, Rich Jochum. “It improves the nutritional profile, increases the safety of the products and meets budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day.”
Cost considerations are undoubtedly a factor when the USDA decides what foods will be included in the program that feeds over 30 million kids every day for free or at reduced prices. Meat is expensive and using fillers can make a big difference in the budget. But it is less conceivable why the agency would take such a step at a time when it promotes higher nutrition standards in school cafeterias and urges kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and less empty calories. It’s a mixed message at best.
Even if the use of “pink slime” in the meat supply is safe, it offers no nutritional benefits to speak off. “Not only is this a potential source of killer pathogens if the ammonia levels are not controlled properly, but the overall protein quality of the beef hamburger is compromised by the inclusion of LFTB,” said Dr. Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist who worked at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and who is credited with the first coining of the term “pink slime.”
The backlash against the USDA’s decision has been swift and still shows no signs of abating. Within a few days following the first reports in the press and social media, Houston-based food columnist, Bettina Siegel, was able to collect hundreds of thousands of petition signatures against the USDA plans, many from concerned parents. Other initiatives across the country have reported similar responses. The widespread attention and media coverage has prompted several fast food outlets like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King to announce their discontinuation of LFTB in their ground beef.
In the end, this whole episode may turn into an opportunity for consumers to become more discriminating in their food choices. Even if the government deems certain ingredients to be safe, it doesn’t mean they should not be listed and explained in great detail and plain English for everyone to understand. When it goes in our food in supermarkets, restaurants or school cafeterias, we have the right to know, so we can make informed choices. The USDA of all institutions should not set a bad example of how to avoid scrutiny.
As reported by the Associated Press (AP) on 3/14/2012, the USDA will offer schools a choice in ground beef buys amid growing concerns over “pink slime.” Under the new policy, schools will be able to choose between beef patties made with the filler or bulk ground beef without it.
One USDA official who was familiar with the decision said to AP that the agency wanted to be transparent and school districts wanted choices. The changes will not go into effect before the coming fall because of existing contracts. The USDA buys about a fifth of the food served in schools.