Drive to Ban ‘Pink Slime’ in School Lunches Gains Momentum

An online effort to ban beef containing an additive known as “pink slime” from the federal school lunch program has garnered almost 19,000 supporters in less than four days.

About 6 percent, or 7 million pounds, of the beef purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the program this year contains the product, made of beef trim and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill possible pathogens such as E. coli. There is no concern about safety risks associated with the product, Dirk Fillpot, USDA spokesman, said in a statement.

McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain, Burger King Holdings Inc. and Yum! Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell have stopped using the substance. McDonald’s dropped the ingredient to be “consistent with our global beef supply chain,” according to a statement from the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company.

“This is like the slaughter house sweepings,” said Bettina Elias Siegel, of Houston, who started the online petition on her blog The Lunch Tray. “Fast food chains have stopped using it because people vote with their dollars, but kids in cafeterias are captive to what’s served there.”

Siegel said sentiment about the product is built around the belief it’s made from inferior parts and may harbor pathogens.

The USDA, which administers the school lunch program, strengthened ground-beef safety standards in recent years and only allows products the agency is confident don’t pose risks, Fillpot said.

Pink Slime

Pink slime treated with ammonia is sold by Beef Products Inc., a Dakota Dunes, South Dakota-based manufacturer, and also known as lean finely textured beef.

The lean beef produced from trim is used in hamburger, sausage and ground beef and is treated with a process also used in foods such as cheeses and chocolates, according to a March 8 statement from the manufacturer.

Media reports create a “troubling and inaccurate picture,” according to a March 8 statement by J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, a trade group representing meatpackers including Tyson Foods Inc. and JBS Swift & Co.

The treatment process, which involves ammonium hydroxide gas, is used in many food products to destroy bacteria, according to the statement.

“Boneless lean beef trimmings is a safe, wholesome and nutritious form of beef that is made by separating lean beef from fat,” Boyle said. The product recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted, he said.

The pinkish, semi-solid substance is made from trimmings, which are smaller pieces of fat that contains bits of beef, according to the meat producers’ trade group.

The trimmings are heated up and spun to separate out the meat, much like cream out of milk. Ammonia and water is used in processing to control harmful bacteria by raising pH levels, according to the group. Another variation uses citric acid.

If the small bits were not separated out and used, about 1.5 million additional head of cattle would have to be slaughtered each year to meet demand, according to the meat industry.

“I will never apologize for using more of the animal. That’s the right thing to do,” said Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the meat institute.