Growing up, I remember all the jokes about school lunches being unappetizing or even experimental, the way only a child’s imagination could (to this day, children’s cartoons still play with that joke from time to time).
Sadly, this perception is hardly the purview of a juvenile imagination, for there’s good reason to believe that what we’re feeding millions of schoolchildren is indeed worse than fiction. It even comes with the cheeky but ominous label of “pink slime,” courtesy of a former USDA microbiologist named Gerald Zirnstein.
What is pink slime? Basically, it describes scraps of slaughtered cow that have been ground-up, defatted, saturated in ammonia (for sanitation, if you can believe it), and congealed into a filler for ground beef. Doesn’t it sound nutritious and delicious? As someone who once worked at a pet store for several years, I can tell you that it sounds a lot like the meat slurry used in dog food, and frankly the ingredients and methodology don’t sound distinguishable.
It almost looks like soft-serve ice cream. I'd hate to make that mistake.
Because of this disturbing similarity, brought to light by various documentaries and investigative reports, a lot companies have thankfully announced plans to discontinue the use of pink slime, the most recent and notable one being McDonald’s.
But apparently, the nutritional standard for our children is less than for clients of a fast-food chain, as last week the USDA expressed its intention to buy millions of pounds of this meat goo for none other than the National School Lunch Program. You can read more about this at the online journal The Daily, which was among the first to report on the matter.
Meanwhile, MoJo columnist Tom Philpott provides his own insight into this disturbing development, including his reflections on a video from the 2008 documentary Food, Inc.
The scene…features a Beef Products executive talking over a milieu straight out of Chaplin’s Modern Times: a vast network of steaming tubes, with people in protective gear and face masks wandering about fussing with dials. Pale chunks of fat and sinew are whisked up on a conveyor belt into a machine, from which they emerge as a coarse paste before entering more machines. “From the food safety standpoint, we’re ahead of everybody,” the exec says, touting his firm’s ammonia process. “We think we can lessen the incidence of E. coli O157:H7” (a deadly strain). The clip ends with those heavily protected workers carefully shutting the finished product—uniform, flesh-colored blocks—into boxes. Over that image, the exec claims that the product ends up in 70 percent of hamburgers served in the US. “In five years we’ll be in 100 percent,” he predicts.
Before the exec’s prophesy could be tested, the product received a devastating blow in the form of an investigative report from the New York Times’ Michael Moss. This article brought the phrase “pink slime” into public view. The nickname emerged, Moss reports, from an internal 2002 email by a USDA microbiologist, who declared he found the practice of labeling the stuff as ground beef to be “fraudulent.” But the real scandal uncovered by Moss was that “Lean Finely Textured Beef”—the USDA’s preferred phrase for you-know-what—wasn’t performing as advertised.
You see, Beef Products International was marketing the stuff to beef processors, fast-food chains, and school cafeteria directors as a solution to the problem of ground beef riddled with pathogens, many of which have evolved resistance to antibiotics. The idea was that pink slime contained enough ammonia that, when you mixed it with ground beef, it would effectively sterilize the resulting blend. And the USDA and FDA had taken that promise at face value, Moss reports. One “top official” of the USDA’s division that oversees the meat supply assured Moss, “It eliminates E. coli to the same degree as if you cooked the product.”
Yet that premise was false. Rather than eliminating pathogens from burger mixes, pink slime was often actually adding pathogens, Moss revealed. Beef Product International’s raw material, fatty trimmings that come mainly from the outside of the carcass, tend to be loaded with E. coli and salmonella. The company had been lowering its ammonia dose based on complaints about flavor. Possibly as a result, in tests conducted by the National School Lunch Program between 2005 and 2009, pink slime tested positive for salmonella at a rate four times higher than the conventional burger mix it was supposed to sterilize, Moss revealed.
Indeed, it’s bad enough we’re feeding such low-quality slop to our kids in the first place, but it’s nutritional and safety standards aren’t even up to par. How many of us would willingly eat something like this if we could help it? How many people even know that this sort of thing is going into their own meals? How could the USDA possibly justify is approval of this stuff? Hint: what has been the national obsession as far as government spending?
The USDA had kept purchasing huge amounts of pink slime for schoolchildren despite the positive tests, Moss noted, precisely because it was cheaper than pure ground meat. “School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed to use the treated meat because it shaved about 3 cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef,” Moss reported.
His report generated outrage in some circles. “Three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef,” a certain blogger for Grist magazine groaned. “Under the severe fiscal austerity that school cafeteria administrators operate under, pinching those three pennies is a rational decision, even if it means subjecting children to ammonia-ridden slime that may contain pathogens.” But the company shook off such high-profile derision, and the School Lunch Program and the company’s fast-food customers remained loyal buyers.
That is, until Jamie Oliver took up the cause on his Food Revolution show last spring. He endeavored to make pink slime from butcher scraps in front of a live audience, theatrically brandishing a jug of ammonia and pouring a huge dash into a bowl of ground scraps. “Imagine how happy an accountant is, you just turned dog food into what can potentially be your kids’ food,” Oliver declared.
McDonald’s denies any connection to the uproar caused by Oliver’s nationally televised show, but the fast-food giant recently joined Taco Bell and Burger King in announcing an end to its use.
Imagine what else will be sacrificed in the name of fiscal austerity. It seems patently farcical to put our children’s health at risk just to save three cents to the dollar. I understand the need to be efficient during these trying times, but is this the lengths we have to go to, especially as our youth become increasingly unhealthy? I’m sure the costs of supporting their subsequent health problems will far outweigh the immediate financial benefit of cheaper meat.
I also recall that Jamie Oliver’s demonstration didn’t leave much of a dent in these kids’ eating habits – most of them expressed an intention to continue eating the stuff, a testimony to our culture’s pervasively poor eating habits. Speaking of which…
And that leads us back to the National School Lunch Program, which, the The Daily reports, plans to buy 7 million pounds of pink slime over the next several months. Last year, The Daily adds, the stuff made up 6.5 percent of the beef purchased by USDA for the school lunch program. A USDA spokesperson speaking to me on background could not confirm the 7 million pounds number but did confirm that 6.5 percent of last year’s purchases were LFTB (Lean Finely Textured Beef). He insisted that it’s a high-quality, safe product and claimed that it had showed no food-safety problems since the 2009 Times article. Nor, he added, does price play a role in the department’s decision to buy it.
The Daily interviewed two former USDA microbiologists who take a different view. One, Gerald Zirnstein, the man who originally dubbed the product “pink slime,” said, “I have a two-year-old son…And you better believe I don’t want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school.” The other, Carl Custer, added, “We originally called it soylent pink…We looked at the product and we objected to it because it used connective tissues instead of muscle. It was simply not nutritionally equivalent [to ground beef]. My main objection was that it was not meat.”
Both men say the product was approved as safe by the USDA over their objections.
Meanwhile, the problem pink slime was originally intended to solve, pathogens in meat, continues apace. Wired’s Maryn McKenna recently broke down the FDA’s annual report on the bacteria it finds on the retail meat it tests each year. “Almost 29 percent of ground-beef samples carried Salmonella strains that were resistant to six [antibiotics],” McKenna reports.
I know times are tough, but surely we can do better for our kids than this. It seems like neither the public or private sector has our interests at heart. It’s up to us to take matters into our own hands, and that starts with realizing what we’re putting into our bodies everyday.