‘Pink Slime’ in School Lunches: Is It Really That Bad?

We always knew school lunches were made up of "mystery meat," but this takes it to a new level.

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It’s unhealthy enough to earn a ban from fast-food giants McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and it’s banned for human consumption in the U.K. But is the notorious “pink slime” beef good enough for your children, to be served up in their school lunches? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced its plan to buy seven million pounds of the stuff in the coming months for use in the National School Lunch Program, The Daily reports.

The dreaded “pink slime” is used as filler in beef. Though it’s been around since the 1980s, it was first introduced into the public consciousness on an April 2011 episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, in which the British celebrity chef attempted to eradicate the least healthy foods from some of the most obese towns in America. And with such a nasty name, many parents fear that the product is harming their children, especially when they have no control over what’s served in school lunches. But the U.S. government is quick to quash the rumblings. “USDA would only allow products into commerce or especially into schools that we have confidence are safe,” the government agency said in a statement to The Daily in February.

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Its real, less sinister name is “lean beef trimmings,” a nod to the method of production that takes the cutaway scraps of beef and animal connective tissue and treats it with ammonia hydroxide to kill bacteria (the smaller trimmings are more susceptible to contamination), which lends it a pink tinge in the process.  So it may not sound like the most organic process, but is the controversy simply over the “pink slime” terminology? The term “pink slime” was coined by microbiologist Dr. Gerald Zirnstein, who attempted to make the additive sound as unappetizing as possible. Its primary producer, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., stands by their product and says it’s completely safe. And the U.S. government backs them up: the ammonium hydroxide compound has been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration and was allotted its “Generally Recognized As Safe” mark many years ago in 1974.

Beef Products Inc. says that more than 70% of the ground beef sold in the U.S. contains lean beef trimmings, but it makes up no more than 25% of the total final product. And according to the USDA, 6.5% of the 111 million pounds of ground beef they’ll buy this year will be the beefy composite. But a CHANGE.org petition has surfaced calling for the USDA to ban the product in school lunches, citing a number of contaminated batches that have been discovered. However, there’s no way of knowing of the day’s school lunch specials has the “pink slime” beef in it, as there are currently no labeling requirements for ground beef that has been treated with ammonia hydroxide.

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