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 outlet 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."