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March Madness: More than Basketball - The "Pink Slime" School Lunch Controversy

Creating healthy school lunches is important to many Americans and has attracted much national attention recently. In January 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama and the US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, announced some major changes that will be coming to school lunches in the next year. These changes include offering fruits and vegetables to every child every day of the week, serving more whole-grain foods and basing portion sizes on the age of the children being served.

Overshadowing these positive changes, however, is the recent public panic over the use of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB)—now commonly called “pink slime”—in school lunches. Reportedly, as much as 15% of the ground beef used in school lunches is made up of LFTB, and this has many parents and school officials worried. What exactly is LFTB and why the sudden demand to remove it from school lunches? Let’s take a look at the facts and the impact this issue could have on school lunches.

In a recent USDA blog post, Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, issued a statement that, “The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.” Her statement was issued in response to the public outcry over the use of LFTB in school lunches. While the USDA currently stands behind their declaration that LFTB is safe, they have also stated that schools will have the option of purchasing beef free of LFTB beginning next school year.

Briefly explained, LFTB is the product obtained from trimmings left over from cuts of meat such as steaks and roasts. The trimmings go through a centrifuge process that spins most of the fat out of the meat. The remaining product has a texture similar to ground beef and is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. LFTB has actually been used as a filler in ground beef for decades without much public concern—until recently.

LFTB was brought to the public’s attention on March 7, when an interview with two former USDA scientists referred to it as “pink slime” on the ABC evening news. Popular blogger, Bettina Siegel (The Lunch Tray), quickly started a petition to demand the immediate removal of LFTB from school lunches. In just a week and half, she had acquired 230,000 signatures. The USDA responded by stating that, starting next fall, schools will be able to choose between buying lean meat that contains LFTB or less-lean beef without the added filler. On average, U.S. schools currently buy 20% of their ground beef from the USDA and the other 80% from private vendors who have their own standards on whether or not to use LFTB.

Just how is this controversy affecting school lunches? Currently many schools serve beef with LFTB because it is less expensive than meet that is free of the filler. However, several districts (including some in NY, FL, TN and NH) have already stopped offering beef that contains LFTB, and many more are exploring the possibility. With continued public concern over the issue and a number of grocery store and restaurant chains removing the product, it is likely that many more schools will be dropping it from the menu as well.

So, is LFTB really dangerous? The beef industry is quick to point out that LFTB is 100% beef and is completely safe for consumption. The USDA backs up this statement. They explain that ammonium hydroxide (the chemical used to treat the LFTB for bacteria) is found in many places in nature and is used to process many other foods such as some cheeses, puddings and chocolates. After much scientific research, the USDA issued a statement in 1974 that LFTB was safe for consumption.

However, critics are quick to voice their concerns as well. They point out that the trimmings used to make LFTB come from parts of the animal that are more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria (a fact acknowledged by leading LFTB producer Beef Products Inc.). And the trimmings, they say, are fit only for pet food. Another common complaint from the public is that packaged beef does not need to list LFTB or ammonium hydroxide on the ingredient label because it is considered a processing agent rather than an additive. It is estimated that as much as 70% of the ground beef sold in U.S. grocery stores contains LFTB. This makes it virtually impossible for consumers to avoid LFTB even if they wish to. Raising more possible concern, Tom Laskawy, Executive Director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, recently wrote about the many chemicals that are used in processing meat for commercial use. He states that, “Should [LFTB] disappear from store shelves, however, we can rest assured the meat that remains will continue to be treated with other industrial chemicals.”

It is not clear whether the “pink slime” hype will generate a snowball effect that results in the questioning of the way meat is processed in the U.S. and labeled for consumption. This current debate has already had repercussions such as a loss of jobs in the beef industry and schools scrambling to change their menus, but there are positive results as well.

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