Pink Slime: It’s What’s for Lunch in America’s Schools

It's not good enough for fast-food chains, but it's ok for our schoolkids?

Pink slime being extruded in a factory.
Does that look like hamburger to you? Pink slime is here to stay. (Photo: jamieoliver.com)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Forget the corn dog and pizza quarrels. Healthy school lunch advocates have a bigger problem on their plates: a 7 million-pound order of connective tissue and beef scraps doused in ammonia, set to hit school lunch trays in coming months.

Despite being dropped in December by McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Burger King, the infamous concoction—known as "pink slime"—is still in high demand, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchase that will keep it on school lunch menus. Yes, keep; it's been there for years and is set to stay. 

The substance is smooshed into meat patties and served up as hamburgers, but the meat product is made from parts of cows "normally destined for dog food and rendering," reports The Daily.

Microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein and retired microbiologist Carl Custer say the goop is "a high risk product." The two conducted a study on pink slime in the late '90s, when JoAnn Smith—known for being buddy-buddy with the beef industry—was serving as undersecretary for the George H.W. Bush administration. (Smith was president of both the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Association). At the time, Custer sounded the alarms for food-safety concerns, but the USDA ignored his warnings, Custer says, soliciting a second assessment of the slime's safety. 

Because the meat scraps are particularly vulnerable to contamination, South Dakota company Beef Products, Inc. came up with the idea to soak the stuff in ammonia to kill E. coli and salmonella in 2001. The USDA stamped it with approval and shortly thereafter, the slime was available for public consumption.

Years later, Zirnstein feels the same as he did a decade ago. Speaking of his two-year-old son, he told The Daily,  "...you better believe I don’t want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school."

But skeptics aren't stopping the pink slime from oozing its way through public schools. The USDA has purchased a sizeable order—1.5 million more pounds than it bought in 2009 for schools—from Beef Product, Inc.

As for safety concerns? In 2009, The New York Times reported that government and industry records showed dozens of incidences of E. coli and salmonella pathogens in schools' Beef Products meat, despite added ammonia.

At that time, Times reporter Michael Moss said that "since 2005,  E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated." The meat never reached lunch room trays, but that hasn't squelched concerns about whether the stuff is fit for school lunch.

For Zirstein, it's a matter of public deceit on what constitutes real food.

"They've taken a processed product [ammonia], without labeling it, and added it to raw ground beef," Zirnstein told The Daily. "Science is the truth, and pink slime at this point in time is a fraudulent lie."

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