By Sarah B. Weir
On March 8, Bettina Siegel, the food columnist and mom of two who launched the petition to ban ground beef containing “pink slime” from the National School Lunch Program, wrote on her blog TheLunchTray.com, “I’m awestruck that we’ve reached this point [of 3,600 signatures].” As of Monday, March 12, the number has topped 170,000.
The meat industry and the United States Department of Agriculture are fighting back. In an interview with The Daily, which broke the story, Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) spokesperson Rich Jochum said: “Including LFTB [lean finely textured beef, otherwise known as ‘pink slime’] in the National School Lunch Program’s beef products accomplishes three important goals on behalf of 32 million kids. It 1) improves the nutritional profile, 2) increases the safety of the products and 3) meets the budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day.” They have also launched a website and twitter campaign “Pink Slime is a Myth.”
What they fail to explain is that mixing “pink slime” into ground beef earns the industry about 3 cents for every pound of meat produced. Some advocates for using LFTB have praised BPI for their “tip to tail” approach, i.e., not wasting any part of the cow. Siegel counters that any meat scraps were already being used in pet food and cooking oil.
As Yahoo! Shine reported last week, “pink slime” is a ground mixture of bovine waste trimmings that are disinfected with ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria are more likely to be present in these scraps than in muscle. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have all stopped using it due to public outcry. “It’s economic fraud,” Gerald Zirstein, the microbiologist who coined the name “pink slime,” told ABC News. “It’s not fresh ground beef. It’s a cheap substitute being added in.”
Defending its purchase of 7 million pounds of ground meat containing the product for the school lunch program, the USDA said in a statement, “All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety.” Reportedly, the use of “pink slime” was first given the thumbs up by former undersecretary of agriculture, Joanne Smith, who also served as president of both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. She determined that the USDA would not require it to be labeled. According to Carl Custer, a colleague of Zirnstein’s who worked for the Food Safety Inspection Service for 35 years, Smith told USDA scientists, “It’s pink, therefore it’s meat.” When Smith left the administration in 1993, she was appointed to the BPI board of directors.
About 70% of all ground beef in the U.S. contains LFTB. At present, the USDA hasn’t backed down from purchasing it for the school lunch program nor is it changing its labeling policy. If consumers choose not to buy ground meat containing “pink slime,” Costco, Whole Foods, Krogers, Publix, and Tops Markets all say they don’t sell it. Beef labeled “organic” is also 100% pure meat with no fillers.
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