In early March, news reports that United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was planning to purchase 7 million pounds of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB, or “pink slime” as it has been called) started to surface. This prompted Bettina Elias Siegel to start an online petition asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “to get pink slime off of our kids’ lunch trays once and for all.” This former lawyer, freelance writer and parent, started a firestorm of media coverage and social outcry.
What is “pink slime”?
Gerald Zirstein, former USDA scientist, first coined this phrase in a 2002 USDA memo written after touring a Beef Products Inc (BPI) production facility. BPI is the company that developed the process to produce LFTB.
It is made by gathering waste trimmings, heating them to a low temperature to separate the fat from the muscle, then spinning the trimmings to complete the separation. The mixture is then sprayed with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The mixture is packed, frozen and shipped to grocery stores and meat packers to be added to most ground beef. 70% of the ground beef in grocery stores contain "pink slime" according to Zirstein. Until its approval for human consumption in the early 1990’s, these trimmings were used in pet feed production.
Who approved it?
According to ABC News, former undersecretary of agriculture, Joann Smith, approved LFTB’s use despite warnings from USDA scientists Zirnstein and colleague Carl Custer. After retiring from the USDA in 1993, Smith became a member of the Board of Directors of BPI.
What about Westford School Lunches?
On March 9 upon hearing one of the news reports, Patti Donahue, Food Service Director for the Westford Schools, immediately contacted all of the schools and told them to put all USDA ground beef and burgers on hold until further notice. In a phone interview last week, she reported that she then contacted the appropriate government agencies for answers. Superintendent Olsen was informed thoughout this process. About a week later, once they had more facts from USDA, statement was issued on the school website.
“Westford Food Services has determined at this time that we will not use any USDA ground beef and hamburgers through the rest of this school year.”
According to Donahue, all of the beef in question was returned as of March 23. USDA has stated that starting next school year, schools will be able to choose whether they purchase beef containing LFTB or not.
“I have no intention of using anything with LFTB in the future.” stated Donahue. She further explained that “If there is any question of what we are being offered, we will purchase beef products from another manufacturer that doesn’t use LFTB.” Any beef products still on the school menus have documentation verifying that LFTB is not included.
USDA stands behind their decision to allow LFTB, stating that they believe it is “safe, nutritious and affordable.”
“I’m not comfortable at all serving that”, Donahue added. “You want to be able to make a choice.”
“Pink Slime” has been in use since the 1990’s. When asked if she knew about the product being added to beef in school lunch items, Donahue said “I had no idea. No one did. It did not have to be labeled.”
Westford joins many other school districts in this decision. Among them Boston, New York City, and Miami-Dade schools. Further fall out from the public outcry includes many grocery store chains announcing that they never used LFTB or that they will stop. BPI announced last week that it will temporarily close 3 of its 4 processing plants.