Why are Kids Getting Pink Slime for Lunches?

Why are Kids Getting Pink Slime for Lunches?

Story at-a-glance -

  • The USDA has ordered 7 million pounds of “Lean Beef Trimmings” – aka “pink slime” for school lunches; the product is not actually meat but a concoction of ammonia-treated beef scraps and cow connective tissues
  • The beef products used to make pink slime are from areas of the cow most likely to harbor pathogens, but while the USDA routinely tests meat used in hamburger products for contamination, meat from Beef Products, Inc., which makes the “pink slime,” is exempt from the testing because the USDA believes the ammonia treatment is so effective
  • 70 percent of ground beef sold in supermarkets contains “pink slime,” but because the ammonia used to treat the meat is technically a processing agent, not an ingredient, it doesn’t have to be listed on the label (and neither do the scraps or the connective tissues)
  • Buying your beef organically and from a local farmer instead of your supermarket is the best way to avoid pink slime in your meat; also do your children a favor and send them to school with a healthy, home-packed meal to eat instead of a cafeteria “mystery” lunch

By Dr. Mercola

What do you get when you combine ground up beef "trimmings" -- which are various beef scraps and cow connective tissues -- with ammonium hydroxide (basically a solution of ammonia in water)?

Its formal name is "Lean Beef Trimmings," but it's being more aptly referred to as "pink slime" -- and it's coming to a school cafeteria near you.

USDA Purchases 7 Million Pounds of Pink Slime for School Lunches

The Pepto-Bismol-colored concoction known as pink slime can legally make up 15 percent of any given beef product, which shaves about 3 cents off the cost for a pound of ground beef.

The USDA has decided this makes good business sense for the school lunch program, and has ordered 7 million pounds from the slime's maker, Beef Products Incorporated (BPI).

This isn't the first time, either -- they've been buying it for years.

As you might suspect, people are concerned.

"Mystery meat" in school lunches has long been the butt of jokes, but no one really wants their child eating a substance that can be compared to any color of slime.

Even putting the "yuck factor" aside, there are some very valid reasons to question why anyone, let alone children, should eat this product:

  1. Microbiologists Carl Custer and Gerald Zernstein (who coined the term "pink slime") concluded in a study that the pink slime is a "high risk product." The trimmings come from parts of the cow that are most likely to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria like E. coli. This is why it has to be treated with ammonia to basically kill off all of the pathogens. Still, even after treatment a New York Times investigation found bacteria still exists in the producti

    " … government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August [2009] in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated."

  2. While the USDA routinely tests meat used in hamburger products for contamination, meat from Beef Products, Inc. is exempt from the testing because the USDA believes the ammonia treatment is so effective
  3. Nutritionally speaking, eating connective tissue is not the same as eating muscle meat. As reported by The Daily:ii

    "We originally called it soylent pink," Custer told The Daily. "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."

    Custer said he first encountered the product — which gained fame recently as "pink slime" in part due to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver —  back in the late 1990s. Despite voicing his concerns to other officials at the food inspection service, however, the USDA ruled that Lean Beef Trimmings were safe. "The word in the office was that undersecretary JoAnn Smith pushed it through, and that was that," Custer said.

    Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, Smith had deep ties with the beef industry, serving as president of both the Florida Cattlemen's Association and the of the National Cattlemen's Association."

  4. Because the ammonia used to treat the meat is technically a processing agent, not an ingredient, it doesn't have to be listed on the label. So there's no way to tell if a BPI product labeled Lean Beef actually contains ammonia-treated beef scraps and connective tissues.
  5. Ammonia is a toxin that can turn into ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer and cleaning products.
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Even McDonald's Won't Buy Pink Slime …

To be fair, they did use it for a time, as did many other fast-food giants (saving a few cents a pound on ground beef is nothing to sneeze at for companies that sell millions of hamburgers a day). But after celebrity chefs and the media exposed that pink slime was a mainstay in many fast-food burgers, McDonald's decided to stop adding it to their burgers (this occurred as of August 2011). Other fast-food companies, including Burger King and Taco Bell, have also decided to nix the mystery meat from their products.

It is a sad state of affairs that ammonia-treated beef scraps and connective tissues have been dropped by fast-food makers but not by the U.S. government who is supposed to make sure that your child's school lunches are nutritious … or for the producers of the majority of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets.

Warning -- 70% of Supermarket Ground Beef Contains Pink Slime

Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist, says that 70 percent of the ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contains the "pink slime" added in as a cheap filler. Those inexpensive boxes of hamburger patties, the cellophane-wrapped bricks of ground beef … the majority of them contain ammonia-treated beef scraps and connective tissue that was once used only for dog food or oil. As ABC News reported: iii

"It's economic fraud," he [Zirnstein] told ABC News. "It's not fresh ground beef. … It's a cheap substitute being added in." … According to Custer, the product is not really beef, but "a salvage product … fat that had been heated at a low temperature and the excess fat spun out."

The "pink slime" is made by gathering waste trimmings, simmering them at low heat so the fat separates easily from the muscle, and spinning the trimmings using a centrifuge to complete the separation. Next, the mixture is sent through pipes where it is sprayed with ammonia gas to kill bacteria. The process is completed by packaging the meat into bricks. Then, it is frozen and shipped to grocery stores and meat packers, where it is added to most ground beef."

Again, you cannot tell if the ground beef you buy contains the substance because it is not listed on the label. This is thanks to USDA officials … including one in particular who allowed the product to be labeled as "meat" -- and later went on to earn millions while serving on BPI's board of directors! ABC News continued:

"The "pink slime" does not have to appear on the label because, over objections of its own scientists, USDA officials with links to the beef industry labeled it meat. "The under secretary said, 'it's pink, therefore it's meat,'" Custer told ABC News.

ABC News has learned the woman who made the decision to OK the mix is a former undersecretary of agriculture, Joann Smith. It was a call that led to hundred of millions of dollars for Beef Products Inc., the makers of pink slime. When Smith stepped down from the USDA in 1993, BPI's principal major supplier appointed her to its board of directors, where she made at least $1.2 million over 17 years."

Yet Another Reason to Know Where Your Food Comes From …

If you still buy your meat at your local supermarket, you should know that you are directly supporting a food system that not only promotes widespread contamination but also the production of cheap and potentially dangerous filler products like "pink slime." And you can bet that as long as there are people willing to buy cheap, "imitation" meat, the industry will continue to produce it.

Healthy, humanely raised meat is out there, and you can find it by purchasing your meat and poultry directly from a trusted farmer whose farming practices you're familiar with. Supporting local farmers and ranchers can go a long way toward improving the entire food system, and more importantly, your personal health. I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, but food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by. There are a number of grass-fed beef ranchers in the United States that offer safe, high-quality meats. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see the following resources:

  • Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Well Guide -- a free online directory of 25,000+ handpicked, locally grown listings of sustainably produced food.
  • Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  • FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.

You Can Make a Difference in Your Child's School Lunch Program …

There are numerous petitions available online to tell the USDA to stop buying ammonia-treated "lean beef trimmings" for school lunches.  Along with signing one of the petitions, you can join Chef Ann Cooper's National School Food Challenge, and make the pledge to provide fresh, local and healthy food to your children both at school and at home. Ann is heading up a grassroots public health effort to make school lunches healthier using practical strategies like:

  • Significantly increasing salad bars in schools across the United States until every child has the choice of healthy fruits and vegetables every day at school
  • Supporting the Farm to School program, which is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers

On an individual level, do your children a favor and send them to school with a healthy, home-packed meal.


+ Sources and References