It sounds like something only a teenager might care to tuck into, but parents in the United States are sizzling over the idea of "pink slime" turning up in their youngsters' school meals.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), keeping to long-established practise, is buying seven million pounds (3.2 million kilogramme) of what it prefers to call "lean finely textured beef" for its National School Lunch Program, which reaches 31 million children, many from low-income families.
It's essentially beef trimmings – left-over bits of slaughtered cattle – that is mixed in a centrifuge, then treated with a cloud of ammonia in a USDA-approved process intended to deter e.coli contamination.
To a layman's eyes, it looks a bit like strawberry frozen yoghurt, before it is folded into hamburger, sausages and other processed meats as filler – with no legal obligation in most cases to label the final product accordingly.
Is the "pink slime" safe?
Beef Products Inc. of South Dakota, which bills itself as the world's leading producer of what it terms "boneless lean beef trimmings," or BLBT, says its product is safe – and the beef industry's voice in Washington agrees.
"The fact is, BLBT is beef," said J Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute in a statement. "In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers' desire for leaner foods."
Giving the meat a puff of ammonium hydroxide, the lobbying group says, perks up its pH or acidity level in order to kill bacteria that might otherwise lead to illness in the event it is improperly cooked.
Real food for school children
But as of Wednesday, more than 220 000 consumers begged to differ. They put their names to an online petition calling on USDA to "stop the use of ground beef containing pink slime in the National School Lunch Program."
"School children should be fed real food, not scraps that would otherwise be used for dog food," wrote one signer, Andrew Golub of Bellaire, Texas. "The only reason why it's in our food is because it lowers costs for the purveyor and reaps a huge profit for the company that makes it," food blogger Bettina Siegel (www.thelunchtray.com), who launched the petition said.
"So it upsets me that consumers who think they're getting 100% ground beef might actually be getting up to 15% pink slime, and that we're feeding this stuff to our school kids, who have no say in the matter."
She added: "The overwhelming support of the petition has as much to do with the fact that many consumers are just outraged that USDA allows this stuff in ground beef without any labelling at all."
Pink slime got its unflattering nickname from microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who as a USDA food inspector investigating a food bacteria outbreak in 2002 toured a Beef Products plant and recoiled at what he found.
"I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labelling," he said in an email to colleagues that came to light in the New York Times seven years later.
Zirnstein still feels outraged.
"I have a two-year-old son," Zirnstein – who grinds his own meat at home, "and you better believe I don't want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school."
Changing school children’s diet
British celebrity chef Jaime Oliver, who campaigns for better school food, also lashed out at pink slime in 2011 in his "Food Revolution" television series, alleging it was present in 70% of all ground beef products.
"That kind of puts it everywhere," he said.
Several fast food chains, including McDonald's, subsequently declared they would cease beefing up their burgers with lean finely textured beef. Red meat in general has been getting a bad rap of late.
Recently a long-running Harvard University study of more than 120 000 people set out what its authors called "clear evidence" that eating red meat can boost a person's risk of dying young by up to 20%.
In Chicago, meanwhile, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine put up billboards this week linking processed meats to colon cancer with the slogan: "Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer."
To which the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council riposted: "Hot dogs are a great Chicago tradition... They come in a variety of nutrition and taste formulas and they are an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals."
(EurekAlert, March 20012)
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