Back in July, 2010 I wrote a post entitled “One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E Coli” which described the now well-publicized beef product known as “pink slime.” The substance, which looks like this,* is produced by Beef Products, Inc., a beef processing plant in South Dakota. BPI injects a mixture of cooking oil and fatty beef trimmings (formerly used for pet food) with ammonia in an attempt to remove E. coli and salmonella.
There has been such a public outcry against “pink slime,” (in part due to a graphic demonstration by Jamie Oliver on his Food Revolution show last summer) that fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell have agreed to stop using it in their food.
When I wrote my post on pink slime in 2010, I cited a USDA press release and statements from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack which indicated (or so I thought) that pink slime would no longer be used in school food. I wrote:
. . . .last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced tougher new standards for the ground beef that will be used in the National School Lunch Program, among other federal food programs. . . . . Among the new standards are more stringent testing for E. coli and other bacteria as well as a planned review of the beef purchasing system by the National Academy of Sciences.
The Daily quotes two former Food Safety Inspection Service microbiologists, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer, who claim their finding that the substance is a “high risk product” was overruled by political interests:
. . . . 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.
“Scientists in D.C. were pressured to approve this stuff with minimal safety approval,” Zirnstein said.
Putting aside one’s natural distaste for the product, what is most distressing to me is the fact that the ammonia treatment itself has been proven ineffective in eliminating pathogens. The New York Times, in a thorough exposé of BPI’s practices, reported in December, 2009:
. . . 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 in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.
In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show. Yet the facility remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers.
Presented by The Times with the school lunch test results, top department officials said they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years.
Public outcry forced the nation’s largest fast food chains to stop the use of BPI’s slime in their food. Only a similar outcry by parents can achieve the same result in the context of school food. That’s why I’ve started my very first Change.org petition this morning — it asks Secretary Vilsack to get pink slime off of our kids’ lunch trays once and for all.
I hope you’ll take a moment to sign the petition and send it on to friends. Thanks, all.
[Ed. Correction/Update: This post was updated on 3/6 to remove an incorrect photo of "pink slime." I'd originally linked to this photo which in fact depicts mechanically separated chicken, not the beef by-products described here. Apologies for any confusion. Please also check out this follow-up post which further clarifies USDA's purchase and also updates readers on the exciting progress of this petition.]
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