By CANDICE CHOI, AP Food Industry Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's school districts are turning up their noses at "pink slime," the beef product that caused a public uproar earlier this year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the vast majority of states participating in its National School Lunch Program have opted to order ground beef that doesn't contain the product known as lean finely textured beef.
Only three states - Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota - chose to order beef that may contain the filler.
The product has been used for decades and federal regulators say it's safe to eat. It nevertheless became the center of national attention after the nickname "pink slime" was quoted in a New York Times article on the safety of meat processing methods. The filler is made of fatty bits of beef that are heated then treated with a puff of ammonia to kill bacteria.
In response to the public outcry over its use, the USDA said in March said that it would for the first time offer schools the choice to purchase beef without the filler for the coming 2012-2013 school year. The agency has continued to affirm that lean finely textured beef is a safe, affordable and nutritious product that reduces overall fat content.
Beef Products Inc., the South Dakota company that makes LFTB, said in an emailed statement that the development is not reflective of the quality or safety of the beef it produces.
"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," Craig Letch, the company's director of food safety and quality, said in the statement.
The company this month announced that it will shutter three of its four plants as a result of the controversy. In the meantime, it has set up a website, beefisbeef.com, to combat what it says are myths about the product.
As of May 18, the USDA says states ordered more than 20 million pounds of ground beef products that don't contain lean finely textured beef. Orders for beef that may contain the filler came to about 1 million pounds.
Because schools were not given a choice last year, all states may have previously received beef with the product mixed in. The USDA estimates that lean finely textured beef accounted for about 6.5 percent of ground beef orders.
The agency is still accepting orders for the upcoming school year; beef that does not contain the product is expected to cost 3 percent more than beef that contains it.
The USDA does not buy lean finely textured beef directly, but purchases finished products from beef vendors who must meet the agency's specifications for orders; products can consist of no more than 15 percent of the product.
About 60 percent of the ground beef acquired by schools was through the USDA's National School Lunch Program, according to the agency's latest survey. The rest is purchased by schools or school districts directly through private vendors.
Schools aren't the only ones rejecting the product. In the wake of the public outcry, fast food chains and supermarkets have also vowed to stop selling beef with the product.