March 27, 2012 - Tomato, tomahto. Pink slime, lean finely textured beef. Whatever you call it, one thing is clear: Many consumers say they don't want it.
Yesterday, following growing public disgust, the primary producer of the textured meat, Beef Products Inc., said it is suspending operations at three of the four plants that make the product. Its announcement came after fast food and supermarket chains dropped the product, even as federal regulators and the meat industry affirm its safety.
Schools, too, have been quick to distance themselves from the cotton candy-colored controversy after revelations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture buys the product, commonly used in ground beef, for its national school lunch program.
"We use 100% all natural ground beef with no fillers, additives or soy isolates including mechanically separated parts of beef," the Los Angeles Unified School District said this month on its food services division website. The district receives all its beef from Don Lee Farms, which said it does not add lean finely textured beef to any of the processed meat it supplies to the district.
Other districts, such as San Francisco Unified, also purchase beef from suppliers that say they do not use lean finely textured beef. But many school districts do purchase beef from the USDA, which generally means there's no way to know if their orders are pink slime-free because the product isn't tracked in detail.
Lean finely textured beef is derived from beef trimmings that have been mechanically stripped of their fat and treated with ammonia hydroxide. It's derisively called pink slime for its bubble-gum color and soft-serve appearance. Labels for beef sold in stores and to schools do not distinguish between meat with or without lean finely textured beef.
Of the 117 million pounds of beef ordered nationally for the school lunch program last year, 6 percent was lean finely textured beef, said Mike Jarvis, a USDA spokesman. That lean finely textured beef gets blended into other ground beef, so where one hamburger patty contains the product, another might not. Any given final beef product sent to schools is composed of no more than 15 percent lean finely textured beef, he said.
California schools ordered more than 22.1 million pounds of beef from the USDA in 2010-11, according to an analysis of state Department of Education data obtained by California Watch.
Nearly 90 percent of that meat – primarily coarse ground beef and hamburger patties – was among the types that the USDA says could contain lean finely textured beef. That means anywhere from none to nearly 3 million pounds of beef from the USDA that was served in California schools last year could have been lean finely textured beef.
Neither the USDA nor the Department of Education tracks the foods districts order directly from private vendors, so the true amount of beef served – and therefore the potential amount of pink slime – could be higher.
Earlier this month, the USDA said it would allow schools to choose beef with or without the pink stuff in the upcoming school year.
"Schools say they don't want to buy it anymore, then we don't buy it anymore," Jarvis said.
But some federal lawmakers don't want a choice in schools: They want the government to stop purchasing lean finely textured beef all together.
In a letter [PDF] to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, 41 Democrats in Congress, including eight from California, said they were concerned that allowing schools to choose or reject the less expensive lean finely textured beef would create a two-tiered food system.
"Creating a two-tiered school lunch program where kids in less affluent communities get served this low-grade slurry is wrong," wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
The USDA estimates the cost differential between ground beef with and without lean finely textured beef will be about 3 percent, Jarvis said.
For Los Angeles Unified, which began telling its vendors to buy only meat without lean finely textured beef after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver brought national attention to the product, the decision was not based on cost.
"We didn't want to deal with it because we didn't want to deal with the negative publicity," said Dennis Barrett, the district's director of food services. "We don't want to buy pink slime."
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