Pure ground beef? All but three states have opted out of ordering the controversial beef product famously dubbed "pink slime" for their school lunch programs says the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska will continue to buy ground beef with added lean finely textured beef (LFTB), ammonia-treated scraps that are used as filler.
Related: "The Making of the Term "Pink Slime"
The term “pink slime” was coined by former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein and used in a 2009 interview by the New York Times on the safety of beef processing. In 2011, the product was featured on a segment of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.
The widespread use of LFTB really caught the public's attention in March 2012, when food columnist and mother Bettina Siegel launched a petition to ban it from the National School Lunch Program. Within a few days, it received over a 250,000 signatures. “When I launched the petition, I could never have foreseen that it would go viral and garner over a quarter of a million signatures,” Siegel tells Shine. “But I suspect that petition signers weren't just supporting my relatively narrow request relating to school food. I think they were voicing a larger concern about the lack of transparency in our food supply and the coziness between the beef industry and the USDA on this issue.”
While the USDA says the product is safe to eat, many consumers were surprised (and grossed out) to learn that much of the ground beef they had been purchasing for decades contained "pink slime." LFTB doesn't have to be labeled and it is estimated that it can be found in 70% of conventional ground beef (it has never been allowed in organic meat). Due to public outcry, the USDA agreed to let schools opt out and many supermarket and fast food chains including McDonald's and Taco Bell also discontinued selling meat with the filler.
The USDA reports that by May 18, about 20 million pounds of beef without the filler and only about one million pounds of beef that may contain LFTB had been ordered by schools.
The meat industry has been hit hard by the rejection of "pink slime." Cargill and Tyson have both reported declines in beef revenue since March. South Dakota based-Beef Products Inc (BPI) the largest producer of LFTB, has announced that it is closing three of its plants (located in Texas, Kansas, and Iowa) at a loss of about 650 jobs.
Craig Letch, the company's director of food safety and quality, said in statement, "Based upon the misrepresentations that have been pervasive in the media to this point, it comes as no surprise that the majority of states have currently elected to purchase ground beef that does not contain lean finely textured beef." The company has also set up a website, beefisbeef.com, to dispel what it maintains are myths about the product.
Beef without “pink slime” costs schools about three percent more to buy. “When the USDA announced its policy change [to let schools opt out] on the ninth day of my petition, I worried that it might not be a meaningful development if schools couldn't afford to take advantage of the non-LFTB option,” says Siegel. “So I was happily surprised to learn this week that the vast majority of school districts have been able to buy non-LFTB beef for their kids. That's a real victory for transparency and choice.”
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