WASHINGTON — After a public uproar sparked by a Houston mom's online petition, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture on Thursday backed off the federal school lunch program's use of "pink slime" by letting school districts decide whether to accept the controversial beef product.
A groundswell developed over the "yuck factor" of the ground beef extended with filler that is made from beef renderings and treated with ammonia hydroxide. The USDA says the product is safe.
"USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable — including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef," as pink slime is officially known, the department said in a statement.
"However, due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products," the statement said. "USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef."
The USDA, roiled by more than 225,000 signatures on the online petition that was launched in early March as well as the ongoing publicity, made its decision in advance of the April purchase order for the fall's school lunch program. Some 32 million children are fed each day in the government's lunch program.
Bettina Siegel, the Houston mom who writes The Lunch Tray blog, was "savoring" the win Wednesday and posted: "While my petition focused on the use of pink slime in school food, I feel strongly that the media firestorm we created and the overwhelming response to the petition was animated by another concern as well: many Americans were learning for the first time about this substance and the fact that it's in, reportedly, 70 percent of our ground beef without any sort of labeling for those who wish to avoid it."
The Miami-Dade Public Schools system is on the list of districts that object to pink slime.
"Our district has been an advocate for purity and disclosure in food products served in the school lunch program," said John Schuster, spokesman for Miami-Dade Public Schools. "We will definitely be moving to the pure ground beef when it becomes available next year."
At the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, officials purchase less than 5 percent of the district's ground beef from the USDA, buying nationally branded products instead, said Mary Brunig, director of child nutrition services.
"We buy a minimal amount of beef from the National School Lunch Program and prefer to buy fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables from the USDA," she said. "We plan to continue to monitor the issue to understand the concerns about the beef industry."
It was the realization that the government was providing the filler to schoolchildren that resonated with the public.
"You have a captive audience in the school lunch program," said Nancy Huehnergarth, executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, a statewide alliance dedicated to promoting healthy eating and physical activity. "I think we shouldn't be serving this to our children." The USDA action, she said, amounted to being "thrown a bone."
Even food experts don't agree about the safety of the product. "Pink slime is safe, nutritious and cheap, but disgusting to think about," nutrition maven Marion Nestle of New York University said in an e-mail. "I think of it as pet foods for kids."
Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Food Safety Program, said in an interview, "We don't see it as a safety risk. There's a yuck factor involved of treatment of a food product with something like ammonia."
"Children should be eating healthy food, not the dregs of the food — it's offensive, if not unsafe," said Klein.
Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports, said that "the concern is that it should be labeled. People should just know what they're getting."
In its release, the Agriculture Department said that it "continues to affirm the safety of Lean Finely Textured Beef product for all consumers and urges customers to consult science based information on the safety and quality of this product."
The federal school lunch program provides the food for, on average, 20 percent of the meals served in public schools and not-for-profit private schools. Local districts and states purchase the remaining 80 percent.
The company that developed the processing technique, Beef Products Inc. of Dakota Dunes, S.D., said in a statement that "we produce lean beef from trim. Trim is the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut into steaks and roasts. This lean beef is used in hamburger, sausage, ground beef, and as a valuable ingredient in many other foods. We use a natural compound — called ammonium hydroxide, which is widely used in the processing of numerous foods, such as baked goods, cheeses, gelatins, chocolate, caramels, and puddings — to slightly increase the pH level in beef and improve its safety."
Consumers, however, have reacted sharply when they learn about pink slime and that fast food chains McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell have stopped using it.
"At McDonald's, the quality and safety of the food we serve our customers is a top priority," Todd Bacon, the company's senior director of quality systems said in a statement. "At the beginning of 2011, we made a decision to discontinue the use of ammonia-treated beef in our hamburgers. This product has been out of our supply chain since August of last year."
Nessa Richman, the mother of an elementary school student and a middle schooler in Takoma Park, Md., said that she though pink slime in school meals was "disgusting."
"Children have the right to be fed food that is as good and as nutritious as an adult's, not literal garbage," said Richman.
(Jessamy Brown of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed.)
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