Thursday, March 15, 2012

USDA to Americans: You'll Eat Pink Slime Whether You Want It or Not

Have Americans been slimed, again? The USDA's announcement on Thursday that school districts will be able to opt out of an ammonium-hydroxide treated ground beef filler known as both Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) and "pink slime," is not exactly inspiring confidence.

According to the USDA news release:

...due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef.

The USDA release doesn't elaborate on the type of choices schools will have. However, numerous news outlets have reported that schools ordering commodity ground beef will now get to choose either pre-made patties that contain LFTB or bulk ground beef, which does not. No information was provided about whether there is a price differential between the two options and the USDA did not respond to my query.

It should be noted that USDA commodities are only about 20 percent of the food purchased by the nation's schools. The other 80 percent are purchased through USDA-approved vendors. Today's news release did not specify that these vendors will have to carry LFTB-free ground beef. Apparently, pink slime isn't leaving our school system so quickly.

Longtime school food advocate Ann Cooper, the Director of School Food Services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, believes pink slime will continue to be rampant in school ground beef next fall, in spite of the USDA's announcement. She notes that there are numerous obstacles to overcome.

First, almost every school in the nation has already ordered their USDA commodity foods for next year (ground beef included) and Cooper wonders if the USDA will actually allow schools to change their orders.

Second, Cooper believes that market limitations and peculiarities in how the USDA commodity food system works practically ensure LFTB beef in schools for the foreseeable future. "If a school district wants to purchase ground beef from an approved vendor, without LFTB, it's practically impossible because it's just not available - most of the beef contains the low-grade filler," Cooper says. "Plus, if the school purchases bulk ground beef without pink slime, they still have to send it out to a third party processor like Tyson to be made into hamburgers, meatballs, etc. Currently, the third party vendors do not have to use the actual beef ordered by the school - they could use any beef. So a school could order LFTB-free beef sent to the processor, and it could get back hamburgers and meatballs with the ammonium-hydroxide processed filler."

Even if the USDA can fix the third party processor problem, Cooper doesn't think that every school will be able to afford the processing cost of the filler-free bulk ground beef. This raises the specter of less affluent districts having to opt for the LFTB pre-made patties while the more affluent can afford to send the bulk ground beef for processing.

While the National School Lunch Program serves over 5 billion meals yearly, there's a much larger problem that the USDA failed to address in their announcement. After learning last week from an ABC News report that 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains pink slime, consumers have been trying to learn if their grocery stores sell ground beef with LFTB filler. While the USDA has been mum on the issue, Congress has taken an interest. New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez today reiterated that he wants to work toward a labeling requirement for LFTB so that consumers can avoid it if they wish, according to The Lunch Tray blogger and pink slime petitioner, Bettina Elias Siegel.

The past week's pink slime blow-up was likely a wake up call for many Americans unfamiliar with Big Food's sway over the contents of our food supply. It's mind-boggling that the USDA, lobbied heavily by the beef industry, never mandated a labeling requirement for LFTB. We now know why industry fought so hard. Americans are repulsed by pink slime and would avoid it in droves if it were labeled. It's pretty clear that in the U.S., the economic well-being of the food industry trumps the consumer's right to know and the wholesomeness of our food.

John Turenne, the president and founder of Sustainable Food Systems LLC, which works with schools to create healthier, sustainable food programs, nicely summed up this past week's collective anger: "Agribusiness is corrupting society with processed garbage," said Turenne. "The fact that chemicals like ammonia are being used on so much of our food, without our knowledge, is infuriating. Let's stick to real food."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why Americans are Angry About Pink Slime

The meat industry and the USDA just don't get it.

Americans are repulsed to learn that "pink slime," an unappetizing industrial slurry of cow connective tissue and low-grade beef scraps, is being added, surreptitiously, to supermarket ground beef as well as meat served in the National School Lunch Program. These ground-up tissues and scraps, formerly used for dog food, have been quietly included in our nation's ground beef supply since the 1990's thanks to a process invented by Beef Products Inc. (BPI). Since beef tissues used in pink slime are predisposed to E. coli and salmonella contamination, the filler is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill the pathogens, before being mixed into ground beef as an additive.

After chef Jamie Oliver went on a televised tirade about the substance, also known as "finely textured lean beef," McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King announced in January, 2012 that they would no longer use pink slime as filler in their ground beef.

But this past week, to the horror of consumers, ABC News reported that the pink slime is even more ubiquitous than we think. 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the gelatinous additive, even though no mention of this filler is required on the label.

All of this begs the question, is it ethical for the meat industry and USDA to force consumers to ingest pink slime? Why isn't inclusion of this ingredient revealed on ground beef labels? And why on earth would our National School Lunch Program purchase for the nation's schoolchildren, ground beef that contains this unsavory filler? Anger over pink slime has dominated the news all week. Last Tuesday, "The Lunch Tray" blogger, Bettina Elias Siegel, started a petition to remove pink slime from school food. As of today, nearly 150,000 people have signed.

The responses from both the meat industry and the USDA to this controversy have been telling. The American Meat Institute (AMI) issued a statement through Food Safety News in support of pink slime:

The fact is, BPI's Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible. In fact, no process can somehow make inedible meat edible; it's impossible. In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers' desire for leaner foods.

In fact, BLBT is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted. The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise. It's the right thing to do and it ensures that our products remain as affordable as we can make them while helping to feed America and the world.

I find that statement remarkable in that the AMI doesn't even address what I think is the major issue. How can the beef industry silently include an ammonia-treated slurry of cow connective tissues and beef scraps in our ground beef supply -- beef parts that few Americans would willingly choose to consume? And as far as AMI's contention that they are ensuring that ground beef is lean, sustainable and affordable, I suspect that the addition of this cheap filler actually helps the meat industry increase its profit margin.

The USDA's remarks on the pink slime debacle, as reported by many news outlets, are equally curious:

"All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety," the agency said in a statement. "USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that we have confidence are safe."

Safe? Let's assume, for argument's sake that pink slime is safe (although the New York Times reported some disturbing findings about the slurry in December, 2009).  Just because the USDA has deemed a food ingredient safe, doesn't give the agency the right to include it, secretly, in our nation's food supply.

Our industrial food system and the government agencies that police it, have been allowing questionable ingredients in our food supply for some time. These ingredients would turn consumers off in droves, if labels provided more detailed or clearer information. Just this week, Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced a change in the recipe of the caramel coloring used in their beverages, to avoid placing a cancer warning label on their products. The change was spurred not by the FDA but by a California law as well as lab tests performed by Center for Science in the Public Interest. Not surprisingly, the FDA maintains the chemical is safe.

In the case of pink slime, the additive isn't even required to be mentioned on ground beef labels. Normally, food ingredients -- many with long chemical names -- are required to be listed on food labels. However, most consumers would need a degree in chemistry to decipher the lists. That's why so many food reform advocates and medical professionals recommend that consumers stop purchasing processed food products that contain a long list of unidentifiable, unnatural substances.

The pink slime uproar shows that Americans are finally fed up with unsavory ingredients/additives in their food. Congress should mandate the labeling of ALL food ingredients, in simple and understandable English. Consumers should always have the information they need to make fully-informed decisions about which additives, if any, they feed their families.