As “pink slime” controversy rolls, Colorado districts see red over the beef filler in school lunches
posted by: Guest Blogger
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.”