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Editor’s blog: “Pink slime” in school lunch

Update: the USDA announced on March 15 that schools would be able to opt out of the beef-trimming, ammonia-treated “lean finely textured beef” known as “pink slime.” Under the change, schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with the product or less lean bulk ground beef without it, according to the Associated Press. 

I was going to write about the watered down bill floating through the Legislature that, if approved, would ban trans fats from school lunch food in districts with more than 1,000 students along with school vending machines.

But, when I heard about “pink slime,” I realized we have far bigger issues related to school food to worry about at the moment. Also, the trans fat ban probably has a slim shot at passing due to big questions about how to enforce it.

Pink slime, on the other hand, might just turn even the most voracious carnivore into a vegetarian. At a minimum, it should make you reconsider “hamburger day” at your child’s school and cause you to ask some tough questions of the school kitchen staff.

The blogosphere is lighting up with stories about this meat byproduct, which is essentially the fat and connective tissue a butcher cuts off your meat before you take it home. The scrap byproduct is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill off any potentially dangerous bacteria.

It’s the very stuff that used to be reserved for pet food – not human consumption.

According to a 2009 New York Times report, tests of the ammonia-treated meat from schools across the country revealed dozens of instances of salmonella and E. coli pathogens. The findings of these reports prompted fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to quit buying the stuff and using it in their burgers or burritos.

USDA buys 7 million pounds of the stuff for school lunch

The USDA, however, saw fit to buy 7 million pounds of the meat byproduct for the nation’s school lunch program, according to the Daily. Manufacturers  of the product, which is used as filler and blended with actual ground beef, maintain it is safe and say that ammonium hydroxide is a “natural compound” widely used in the processing of many foods.

Meat products treated with ammonia don’t have to be labeled because the compound is viewed as a processing agent rather than an ingredient, which is why this may be surprising to you.

Now, it is true that I know zip about meat processing and, frankly, I don’t want to know about it because I’m not ready to give up the occasional burger. But this strikes me as over the top.

EdNews Parent expert and “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper, who also oversees school food in Boulder Valley, was just interviewed by CNN on the topic. She assured me that no “pink slime” will make it into Boulder Valley school lunches (where my daughter attends school) but could very well make its way into other Colorado district lunches.

9NEWS covered the story, too. 9Health reporter Dr. John Torres said ammonia isn’t dangerous to humans in this quantity. However, he also said he is more concerned about the possible E. coli and salmonella that could still exist in the beef byproducts, even after the chemical treatment. He also noted that the meat byproducts don’t have the same nutritional value as pure ground beef because they’re not made of muscle.

Change.org has a petition going around that is quickly racking up signatures. This is one campaign you might want to join. Or, at least talk to the people in charge of your child’s school lunch program to make sure kids are actually eating meat if hamburgers are on the menu.


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.