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As “pink slime” controversy rolls, Colorado districts see red over the beef filler in school lunches

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As the “pink slime” controversy has seeped into school lunches, some Colorado districts have responded to a surge of parent and community concern over safety by changing the way they approach their ground-beef purchases.

Ann Cooper, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District, said she received dozens of e-mails seeking assurances that the school would not serve beef with a filler called “lean, finely textured beef” — more recently dubbed “pink slime” in the wake of reports and social-media campaigns questioning its safety.

“There’s no reason to use ammoniated beef in our school food — just no reason,” Cooper said. “It’s not the same as using 100 percent ground beef. Do we really need to put that in school food? We’re just choosing not to.”

So has Denver Public Schools, which also participates in the USDA commodity program. But DPS, after taking days to trace the origin of its government beef, found that its Texas-based supplier doesn’t use the processed filler in any of its products.

“We’re not currently receiving beef that has pink slime in it,” said Theresa Hafner, DPS executive director of enterprise management-food services. “Perhaps we were just lucky.”

The McDonald’s restaurant chain as well as grocery giants Kroger Co. and Safeway have joined the list of companies that no longer sell beef with the filler.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while maintaining that lean, finely textured beef is safe and nutritious, has responded to requests from school districts across the country by offering them more choices when purchasing ground beef through the National School Lunch Program. Schools buy an average of about 20 percent of their food through the USDA.

next school year, it will allow districts to specify whether they wish to purchase ground beef with or without the filler.

“I think having the option opens up for district (food) directors an opportunity to decide what they’re going to do,” said Jane Brand, director of the office of school nutrition for the Colorado Department of Education. “They’re very passionate about school nutrition and concerned about providing the best food to the schoolchildren.”

Brand said she heard that several districts in the Colorado Springs area, who buy local, found that their meat did not contain the filler.

The textured beef is produced using a 20-year-old process in which beef trimmings, left over from the cutting process, are heated and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat from fat. Ammonium hydroxide, a mixture of ammonia and water, is applied to the meat to kill bacteria.

Critics say the substance should be used only in such products as pet food. And now, says one expert, the USDA has a big public-relations problem on its hands.

“They’re buying something called ‘pink slime’ for school lunches,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “It’s about human culture more than anything else. It’s not about safety or how many nutrients. It’s about cheap. There are things we find acceptable to eat and things we do not. This is made from parts we would not otherwise eat.”

In response to the furor, the Boulder Valley district has gone completely outside the USDA program to purchase beef that has been certified as non-ammoniated. It has returned its remaining supply of USDA beef and sought out its own suppliers on the open market.

“There will be a cost, though I can’t tell you exactly what that is yet,” Cooper said. “But the health of our children is important enough that we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it.”

She added that the ground beef with the filler runs about 3 cents per pound cheaper — a factor that could influence less-affluent districts to choose that option.

“But that’s a horrible, horrible position that the USDA is putting school districts in,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a choice. We should just have the healthiest possible products for all our children.”

Until the controversy surfaced recently, DPS’s Hafner had no idea that some beef from the USDA’s commodity program contained the filler. There’s no reason she would — beef containing it does not have to be labeled as such.

The discovery left her outraged. It did the same to many parents, who didn’t hesitate to make their feelings known. Now, Hafner said, she’s making a conscious effort to steer clear of the pink slime.

“But I think it’s more important than just our policy,” she said. “If the USDA changes its specs, then all districts will be better for it instead of me being a loud voice in Denver.”

Kevin Simpson

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  • comment avatar Lynda March 23, 2012

    OK, so pink slime has been exposed; it’s probably going to go away because of all the negative publicity. But the mentality that gets it put in our food supply in the first place is still there. What else are they slipping in and not telling us? It’s all about making food as cheap as possible instead of as wholesome as possible. We were noticing that so many of the e.coli outbreaks were from hamburger that we have been grinding our own from solid cuts purchased on sale from some time. Knowing about pink slime and other additives is just more reason to do so. I think you have to be skeptical about anything sold by the food industry.

  • comment avatar Will March 23, 2012

    This “pink slime” filler issue cracks me up. What do you folks think you are eating when you consume meat? It is the dead tissue of a slaughtered animal. It is packaged nicely, but it is the result of the killing of animals. It contains blood, tissue, ligaments, and often other remains of the dead animal. So, what’s a bit of “pink slime” when you really think about what you are eating?

  • comment avatar Gregory March 23, 2012

    The ‘oatburgers’ we used to consume from the DPS school cafeteria back in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s were pretty benign compared to this miserable mix. I wouldn’t even feed this stuff to my dog.
    The Boulder Valley school district, McDonald’s, Kroger’s and others are to be commended for refusing to buy from this unscrupulous ‘manufacturer’, and maybe with enough public outcry (plus a couple of lawsuits), the manufacturer of this ‘ammoniated beef’ will go out of business.

  • comment avatar Connie March 24, 2012

    I caught a show about food in the LA school district a year ago (it seems like a year anyhow). I think it was Food Revolution – or something like that. A guy trying to get the parents interested in the food their kids were being served in the LA school district and one of the episodes focused on pink slime. I stumbled across the show while channel surfing one bored night – I started grinding my own beef after seeing that show. I am surprised that it has taken this long for people to get outraged.

  • comment avatar HollyBerry March 24, 2012

    I don’t eat meat, but I think that part of what’s bugging people is the ammonia–if they were treating apples with it, I wouldn’t want my kids to eat those either.

  • comment avatar Donduk March 24, 2012

    It’s a mistake to think that the school lunch program exists to provide wholesome, nutritious meals to schoolchildren. That may have been the original purpose, and some folks try hard to make it a reality. But its essential purpose is to provide markets for agribusiness surplus.

    Same goes for food supplied to the indigent: if it’s edible, well, that’s a bonus. I once had a chance to, umm, dine on his folks’ government-issue canned pork. No amount of barbecue sauce made it palatable.

  • comment avatar Windbourne March 24, 2012

    No. They treat apples with ethylene gas.
    And if you want to keep cut apples looking good, simply coat it with acid.

    Keep in mind that ammonia is not that big a deal. They are using it to raise the Ph in the meat. When it hits your stomach, the HCL in there counteracts with it. In fact, we use ammonia for fertilizer which is what is then consumed by us.
    All kind of disgusting, BUT in itself, is NOT the big deal.

    The big deal is what they put in there. It is as bad as the McD/BK Chicken Nuggets.
    Loads of cartilage, tendons, organs, etc. And it is significant amounts of those items.

    IOW, the parts in the pink slime, that used to for other areas (dog food, etc) is now being sold for the RELATIVE MUCH HIGHER PRICED ground beef. The profits on pink slime were quite high, which is why companies like Safeway had such good prices on their meats (which increasingly come from overseas including china).

  • comment avatar EA M March 24, 2012

    Amazing… call it “pink slime” and all the sudden people are concerned. This type of food alteration has been going on for decades, and yet when I refused to eat pre-processed mass produced beef I get looked at like a yuppy. fact is you can buy good fresh ground beef at a dozen butchers throughout town for a similar price to the fast food burger.

    Keep your local butcher in business and eat better tasting, healthier ground beef for the same price (<$4.00/lb.) So simple yet it seems so far fetched to most.

  • comment avatar Windbourne March 24, 2012

    Things that are promoted as top end are not.
    beneful? BluBuffalo?
    Absolutely not. LOADED with Chinese ingredients.

    Natural Balance Limited, Innova, etc. do not suffer from those recalls. They continue to use Western ingredients. We use Innova Senior. Though to be honest, my old boy now expects a little bit of human food to be mixed into it.

    As to the ingredients, it is such a miserable issue. I am about to get a company off the ground (finally). At that time, I think that I am going to start a web site in which wherever the parts/ingredients/etc come from, you put a flag/Continent on the product. The idea is that you list the first item to be where final assembly is from, and then all that follows is where ingredients could be from. If you do not know, or global in nature, than you put earth. The idea being that you put a minimum of 2 pix on it. With such an approach, we can solve many issues.

  • comment avatar GoBronx March 24, 2012

    Goodness gracious people. Haven’t these concerned parents ever read the ingredient and nutrition labels on a pack of Oscar Meyer hotdogs? Sausage, reconstituted chicken (see chicken McNuggets for a perfect example). Lord help the children of the 40s and 50s that grew up on Spam.

    Yes, it’s pretty sick when you actually consider the source of a lot of this processed crap we all put in our bodies. But it’s the same as it ever was, just more education and enlightenment. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Or to quote a well respected sage “Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.”

  • comment avatar Derek March 24, 2012

    The importance of raising the pH level is to kill off organisms that would harm us, like E. coli. Seems to me like this is hysteria at its finest. If you like your burgers rare, it is in your interest to eat this product.

    First of all, let’s call it what it is: Boneless lean beef trimmings.

    Second, let’s make sure that this is listed as an ingredient, so that consumers may choose to avoid it if it is their will to do so.

    All in all, this really isn’t anything a little education can’t fix. Personally, I would rather have beef without the boneless lean beef trimmings, and not eat it rare. That’s just me, though.

  • comment avatar Andrea March 24, 2012

    As someone who likes beef that is pretty close to still alive, when it comes to ground beef, high quality is important from a food safety standpoint. Obviously, ground chuck and other good quality cuts are the safest, but if we’re going for the regular stuff, getting meat that has been treated with ammonium hydroxide is fine by me because I like a happy balance of being able to eat rarer beef without the food poisoning. I’m not a fish therefore I can metabolize it just fine, thank you.

    Of course, I’m a spite-aterian. If you tell me it’s bad without presenting legit science, unethical, or perhaps even deadly, I will look you in the eye as I pop it into my mouth. Heck, I even once ate a little pellet of silica gel (the “do not eat” antidessicant stuff) for the fun of it. I grew up on fried SPAM, Sam’s Club giant hot dogs, fish fingers, and chicken pattys, flaked and formed mystery meat is home territory for me!

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