One month after a North Carolina elementary school teacher determined that a lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich, banana, chips and a juice box wasn’t healthy enough for a four-year-old student, it has emerged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has purchased almost seven million pounds of a controversial meat product now commonly called “pink slime” to serve in public schools.
While some observers are convinced it’s unsafe to eat, others see it as safer than — or at least as safe as — other beef products that Americans eat on a regular basis.
The meat industry calls it Lean Finely Textured Beef, and first provided it to school foodservice programs in the 1990s. Now former USDA scientist-turned-whistleblower Gerald Zirnstein says roughly 70 percent of all ground beef purchased in the United States contains the processed product.
“It’s economic fraud; it’s not fresh ground beef. It’s a substitute, a cheap substitute,” Zirnstein told ABC News.
“We originally called it soylent pink,” another USDA scientist, Carl Custer, told The Daily. “We looked at the product, and we objected to it because it used connective tissue instead of muscle. It was simply not nutritionally equivalent [to ground beef].”
The so-called “pink slime” is a mixture of leftover beef trimmings and other beef parts that remain after larger cuts are trimmed down.
Food scientists have developed a process that involves lightly heating the meat to help separate its fat content from muscle, then using a centrifuge to complete the separation. Finally, the meat is pushed through a series of pipes, where it is sprayed with ammonium hydroxide gas to destroy bacteria.
The gas raises the Ph level — the acidity — of the meat mixture to a level at which most bacteria can’t survive.
USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told The Daily Caller on Friday that both the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service classify ammonium hydroxide in the “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) category. This means the ingredient can be used without special regulatory approval from the government.
Other ingredients with GRAS status include citric acid, fish oil, gelatin, peanut oil and baking soda.
This year, the National School Lunch Program will use more than 111 million pounds of ground beef. Only about 6.5 percent of that amount will be the “pink slime” mixture, Lavellee told TheDC. But regulations allow up to 15 percent in beef products.
In 2009 the New York Times reported that between 2005 and 2009, the engineered beef product tested positive for salmonella four times more often than traditional ground beef.
The USDA is defending the decision to buy it.
“All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety. USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that we have confidence are safe,” Lavelle explained.
The USDA upped its order of Lean Finely Textured Beef for school lunches by roughly 1.5 million pounds between 2009 and 2012, according to a New York Times report. Meanwhile, First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced a new set of school lunch nutrition guidelines – which doesn’t mention the product at all.
“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat and ensure that they have a reasonable balanced diet,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement. “And when we are putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.”
Some food activists have cried foul over the product’s use. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, for example, organized a successful public campaign against it.