If you thought that you were never going to hear the term “pink slime” again, prepare for disappointment. Despite the fact that the meat product – known in the industry by the name of “finely textured beef” – kicked up so much controversy last year that school districts all over the country made solemn promises not to use it in school lunches again, it will return to the menu in at least four more states this fall.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, that brings to seven the total number of states that have put in orders for meat containing pink slime, which will be used for meals over the course of the 2013-14 academic year. Last year only three states – Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota – were willing to weather public indignation to use the product.
But as schools across the country grapple with tight budgets, some are changing their minds and accepting the lower-price alternative product that brings down the price of the food they serve. Schools in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas have now done an about face and also put in orders with the USDA for ground beef that may contain the product, government data obtained by POLITICO reveal.
It’s no wonder. Lean finely textured beef brings down the cost of ground beef by about 3 percent, which can add up quickly in a program that feeds more than 31 million school children each day.
Bill Tomson and Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico report that with new lunch standards making school meals more expensive, states can ill afford to ignore any money-saving measures available to them – even if those measures include controversial meat products that have provoked strong reactions from nutritionists and parents alike. According to Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, additional funding made available by the federal government to cover the added expense of more whole grains, fruits and vegetables doesn’t go far enough.
Considered by the beef industry to be an impressive innovation, lean finely textured beef is made from the remnant scraps of cattle carcasses that were once deemed too fatty to go into human food. The scraps are heated and centrifuged to reclaim bits of muscle and then the product is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli before being mixed into ground beef. Currently, USDA allows these beef products to contain up to 15 percent lean finely textured beef without labeling requirements, but last year the department said it would allow voluntary labeling.
Lean finely textured beef is safe, asserts Al Almanza, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Isn’t that what we want – a safe product to feed our families?” he says.