Last month, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA was reversing a rule limiting the amount of meats and grains students were given in their school lunches. This change was no-doubt driven by the many parent complaints (and student protests!) that kids were coming home from school hungry.
So, should parents celebrate the fact that kids will be getting more meat on their school lunch trays? They won’t when they find out this meat will be a lot higher in fat thanks to a totally unnecessary media-driven freak-out over a meat product commonly called “pink slime.”
Now, let me be clear; “pink slime” isn’t exactly pretty. And let’s face it, while we all might like to eat meat now and then, few of us want to watch it being processed. Yet the charges against this particular beef have less to do with how it looks (although the media certainly helped sell unfounded fear of the product) and more to do with whether the product is safe.
First, some background: Readers might remember last year’s hullabaloo surrounding ABC News reporter Jim Avila story on “pink slime.” His report had all the hallmarks of a nighttime news-entertainment program—drama, tears, outrage, shock and panic. He portrayed pink slime as dangerous—a total fabrication that will have major implications for schools and children for years to come.
The truth about “pink slime” is actually far less interesting. While I agree pinks slime is unappetizing, in reality, it’s nothing more than tiny pieces of lean beef that are retrieved from the larger pieces of fat that have been removed during the butchering process. Because these tiny pieces of beef aren’t uniform, they can’t be packaged separately for sale so they are finely ground and treated with ammonia hydroxide gas—which eliminates bacteria in the meat (I’ll address the fears of ammonia hydroxide in a minute).
So, how exactly does this finely ground beef make it to your child’s school lunch tray? It’s all about the price. Because lower-fat ground beef that doesn’t contain “pink slime” has a much higher price tag, beef producers came up with a solution to provide low-fat beef at a low price. By mixing this finely ground beef (the pink slime)– which is roughly 95 percent fat-free (Avila managed to skip over the fact that it’s basically health food) – into a less expensive, higher-fat, regularly ground beef, the overall fat content of the finished ground meat product is lowered.
As a result, the final product is sold at a much lower price and is therefore available to penny-pinching schools. This is good news. After all, serving school children lower-fat hamburger is in line with the First Lady’s goals of lowering childhood obesity.
But now, thanks in large part to the panic caused by Avila’s report; most schools will likely opt to purchase beef that doesn’t contain this finely textured beef at a higher price. In fact, according to the USDA, only Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota have placed orders for ground beef that contains the finely textured beef. Parents should ask themselves: in these tough economic times, which do you think schools will choose?
Parents should be angry that they are being told lies about the beef served at school. While it isn’t prime rib, it certainly isn’t dangerous or unhealthy.
Much of that “danger” narrative centered on the fact that “pink slime” is treated with ammonia hydroxide gas. It was a highlight of the Avila story—pushed as proof that this product was harmful. Others have focused on this issue as well. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver famously misrepresented this process by tearfully dumping a bottle of ammonia on a pile of ground beef. That makes for good television but the truth is that treating ground beef with tiny amounts of ammonia hydroxide gas will keep kids safe from deadly bacteria. And while focusing on the beef, Oliver neglected to mention that the ketchup and mustard kids put on their burgers is also treated the same way along with dozens of other foods.
But don’t just take my word for it; listen to Nancy Donley, whose six year old son died after eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger in 1993. She has spoken passionately about the misinformation being bandied about on ammonia hydroxide saying “…the use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry.” She seems a pretty solid authority on the subject yet Avila and Oliver haven’t asked her opinion on the matter.
There are a lot of things wrong with school lunches but safe, low-fat beef isn’t one of them. Because of Avila’s totally irresponsible reporting and one celebrity chef’s inability to read data, we have a lose/lose situation on our hands: Kids will likely be eating higher-fat beef this year and parents can again start worrying about what their kids are eating at school.
Julie Gunlock is a mom of three young boys and she is the director of Women for Food Freedom project at the Independent Women's Forum