‘Pink slime’ beef controversy sizzles

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Gail Schontzler

Talk about mystery meat.

Even Bozeman School District officials say they’re having trouble finding out whether the controversial beef product nicknamed “pink slime” is in the federal beef being fed to school kids in their cafeteria lunches.

“I haven’t gotten a response from (the state Office of Public Instruction) yet,” said Bob Burrows, the school district’s man in charge of meals. “I can’t find out anywhere.”

Burrows said he has been in the food business many years and he doesn’t think that the “lean finely textured beef” filler is in Bozeman school lunches.

But there’s really no way for him to know. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t require labeling the filler—which is made from industrially processed beef scraps treated with ammonia gas to kill bacteria. The federal government maintains that it’s simply beef, that it has been on the market for years and that it’s safe and nutritious.

According to news reports, 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the filler.

It was dubbed “pink slime” by a former USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, as first reported in the New York Times in 2009. Zirnstein told ABC News last week that he won’t eat the filler, once used only in dog food and cooking oil. He called it “economic fraud. It’s not fresh ground beef. It’s a cheap substitute.”

After TV chef Jamie Oliver brought it to the public’s attention, it has become so controversial that McDonald’s and other fast food chains announced late last year that they would no longer use the filler.

Last week the USDA announced that school districts can opt out of using meat containing the filler—starting next year. Schools then will have a choice between ground beef patties that are 95 percent lean and contain the filler or ground beef without the filler that contains more fat.

In the meantime, the filler is still in school lunches, somewhere. According to the Associated Press, this year the USDA purchased 111 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program, and about 7 million pounds came from Beef Products Inc., the company that invented the filler. In 2008, the USDA bought 5.5 million pounds from BPI, estimating it saved the school lunch program $1 million a year.

The beef over beef is getting reactions from Congress.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., issued a news release Monday urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to take “pink slime” off school lunch menus and replace it with “high-quality Montana beef.” Tester noted a 2009 report found the filler was “four times more likely to test positive for salmonella than traditional ground beef.”

“The food that we provide our children should not be over-processed waste,” Tester wrote, urging that schools should be allowed to replace “pink slime” with local foods like Montana beef.

Tester added he is working to include in the upcoming Farm Bill a “Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act” to give schools greater flexibility to use their USDA commodity dollars to buy locally grown food.

At the Bozeman School District, Burrows said he has asked for flexibility before and “USDA told us it’s a non-starter—don’t even ask.” Since the 1980s, a few U.S. school districts in a pilot program have been able to use federal cash to buy food, instead of getting free surplus food from markets the USDA is trying to support.

“We’ve been pushing and pushing to get this done,” Burrows said. “It would put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Montana economy… I’ve met resistance at every level. OPI isn’t supporting it either.”

With greater flexibility, Burrows said he could use USDA credits to buy Montana beef from Billings.

“Instead, they send us ground beef they contract from mega-factories,” Burrows said. If he bought Montana beef now, it would have to be with cash, he said. “I’d have to raise (lunch) prices to cover it.”

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., a fifth-generation rancher, issued a statement Tuesday saying, “Montana produces the best meat in the world, which is why, given the choice on a level playing field, consumers will pick Big Sky beef every time. While some federal officials want to tell Montana’s ranchers what they can and can’t do, I’ll keep fighting to open new markets for them, both here and abroad.”

Christine Emerson, director of Montana OPI’s school nutrition program, was out of the office and couldn’t be reached for comment. OPI’s official spokeswoman said she had no information about whether the beef filler is in Montana school lunches.