The U.S. Department of Agriculture has weighed in on the use of so-called pink slime in beef served in the government's free and reduced-price school lunch program.
Today the agency confirmed that it believes the beef product — known in the industry as Lean Finely Textured Beef — is safe. Nonetheless, it announced that owing to "customer demand" it will give school food administrators that receive meat through the program the option of ordering beef without it in the next school year.
The defatted beef trimmings that are processed into what critics call pink slime also end up in much of the ground beef sold in supermarkets. But it's impossible for consumers to know that, since USDA doesn't require meat companies to state on the label whether ground beef includes trimmings.
USDA said today that all food purchased for the National School Lunch Program undergoes safety testing, including the Lean Finely Textured Beef. One way the industry says it kills harmful bacteria is by spraying ammonia gas on the meat long before it is served.
USDA's decision comes two months after McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell said they would stop using Lean Finely Textured Beef in their ground beef dishes. In the past few weeks, thousands of people added their names to petitions asking the government to stop buying this product.
For the 2011-2012 school year, the government has already purchased 7 million pounds of trimmings from the company Beef Products Inc. for school lunches. USDA allows up to 15 percent of a finished food item, like a hamburger or taco, to be made with the Lean Fine Textured Beef.
One school food administrator, Ann Cooper in Boulder, Colo., says she is having trouble finding alternatives to ground beef made with trimmings from her suppliers in Denver. "It's become so ubiquitous," she says. Some estimate that up to 70 percent of ground meat in U.S. contains Lean Finely Textured Beef.