*See UPDATE below
The US Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday that it will be changing procurement policies for the National School Lunch Program, following a firestorm of negative attention about its use of ground beef that includes "Lean Finely Textured Beef Product." Known to its critics as "Pink Slime," the product is a cheap, ammonia-treated filler for ground beef, made from fatty beef trim and fat, and has been allowed in childrens' school meals for years, though some major fast food chain restaurants refuse to use it. A petition on Change.org that calls for a ban on the use of the product in schools has garnered more than 220,000 signatures in a little more than a week.
Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME) both separately called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week to ban the product from school meals, and require labeling when it is added to ground beef.
"It is wrong to feed children a slurry that was formerly only used for dog food," Pingree wrote to Vilsack on Wednesday.
USDA has declined to ban the product, but today said that "in response to requests from school districts across the country," it will be "adjusting procurement specifications" for the 2013 school year. The department pledged to provide schools with the choice to order beef either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef Product. But because the federal government doesn't require that "Lean Finely Textured Beef Product" be listed as an ingredient when it is used, schools may not even be aware they are using beef containing the filler. There's currently no USDA plan to require labeling.
When queried about how schools can make a choice about something that is not labeled, USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said that "The product is not labeled, per se, but vendors will make this clear at point of selection when schools place orders."
Despite changing its policy, USDA insists the product is safe, and that the filler is the kind of nutritious food covered in the recently updated school meal standards included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010. More than 32 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and USDA recently announced a pilot program to ensure that more children are enrolled through "direct certification," using Medicaid information to ensure qualification.
"USDA continues to affirm the safety of Lean Finely Textured Beef product for all consumers," the Department said today, mimicking press releases put out by the US beef industry.
Lean Finely Textured Beef Product is used in countless products, and made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. and Cargill Meat Solutions, headquartered in Kansas. It is created using fatty bits of beef left over from other cuts, which are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix is then treated with "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" designed to kill bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, and then compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. It is not required to be listed as an ingredient when used in any food products.
McDonald's and Burger King are among the major chains that will not purchase ground beef containing the filler. Critics say the ammonia process does not necessarily kill deadly foodborne pathogens.
The nickname "Pink Slime," created by a federal microbiologist, has appeared in the media since a 2009 New York Times report on the product. The current firestorm of media coverage arose last week, when USDA announced it would purchase 8,000 pounds of product.
UPDATE, MARCH 23:
The letter to Sec. Vilsack has now been expanded and endorsed by 40 other Democratic Members of the House, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. (MI), Jan Schakowsky (Ill), John Lewis (GA), Raúl Grijalva (AZ) and Chris Van Hollen (MD), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. They are calling for a full ban on the use of the product in schools.
USDA's new policy doesn't go far enough to address concerns about Pink Slime, the Members argued, and said they are concerned the opt-out initiative will create a "two-tier" system under which the wealth of a school district will determine the quality of the food served.
"If pink slime laced ground beef is less expensive to make, we are very concerned that lower funded districts will be forced to use it," the lawmakers wrote. "Creating a two-tiered school-lunch program where kids in less affluent communities get served this low-grade slurry is wrong."
They pointed to the fast food restaurants that decline to use the product, and asked why USDA insists on using federal funds to purchase a food product that the private sector considers unfit for human consumption.
The text of USDA's news release:
USDA Affirms Safety of Lean Finely Textured Beef Product for Consumers
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2012 – In response to requests from school districts across the country, the USDA announced today that it will offer more choices to schools in the National School Lunch Program when it comes to purchases of ground beef products.
USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable – including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef. 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. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef.
USDA 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. Lean Finely Textured Beef is a meat product derived from a process which separates fatty pieces from beef trimmings to reduce the overall fat content.
By law, USDA has two primary responsibilities as part of its mandate to provide safe and nutritious food to the American people. Through the Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA ensures that safety of the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products. Through the Food and Nutrition Service and the Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA provides food and nutrition assistance through several domestic programs, including the National School Lunch Program.
While USDA sets national nutritional guidelines for school meals, school districts make local decisions on what food to feed kids to meet these guidelines. On average, schools in the National School Lunch Program purchase approximately 20 percent of their food through USDA, and approximately 80 percent of food served is purchased directly by schools or school districts through private vendors. Schools purchase food from the department through the USDA Foods Program, which provides more than 180 nutritious food items that are fresh, frozen, packaged, canned, dried, or in bulk. USDA procures these products based on the demand from schools to help meet the menu planning needs, student taste preferences, school nutrition goals, and local wellness initiatives.
USDA ensures all food purchased for the National School Lunch Program meet stringent food safety standards, which includes rigorous pathogen testing. Purchase specifications are continually reviewed, microbial test results are evaluated, new food safety technologies are considered, and food safety experts are consulted to determine the adequacy of our food safety requirements.