School Lunch Report Card: Is Pink Slime Worse Than a Hot Dog?

The maker of the meat product now known as "pink slime" announced yesterday that it's suspending operations at three of its four plants, after concerns (okay, full-scale freakouts) that the product was showing up in school lunches. Are your kids eating it? How bad is it? Here's what you need to know: 

What is pink slime?
Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) is a meat product made from scrap meat trimmings leftover after a cow has been divided into premium cuts, like sirloin or flank. The trimmings are processed to remove the fat and then treated with a type of ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bugs like E. coli and Salmonella. "Pink slime" is the name former USDA scientist Gerald Zirstein gave to the product in a 2002 email that later became public, according to a 2009 story in The New York Times. The product, often considered a "filler," has been around for years, but opposition to it has gained steam after Jamie Oliver profiled it on his show Food Revolution last year. In early March, The Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Siegel started a petition (which now has over 250,000 signatures) to end the USDA use of pink slime in school lunches.

How prevalent is pink slime in our food?
Since there's no requirement for LFTB to be on a product's label, it's hard to know, but Zirnstein told ABC News earlier this month that 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets contains some pink slime. Many supermarket chains recently pledged to stop selling it, including Kroger, Stop & Shop, Safeway, Supervalu and Food Lion, according to The Wall Street Journal, while others, such as Target, Whole Foods, A&P and Costco stated that they never sold meat with made with it. McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell have also promised to stop selling meat with LFTB.
 
How much pink slime is in school lunches?

Pink slime has been a staple in the school cafeteria for years. According to The Daily, the USDA plans to buy 7 million pounds of "pink slime" this year from LFTB maker Beef Products, Inc. for the national school lunch program. The USDA announced on March 15 that school districts would be able to opt out of receiving meat with pink slime in it in the fall -- and many schools have stated that they will opt out.
 
How can you know if your school is serving pink slime?
Call your school or district directly. Many districts are already phasing the product out according to The New York Times. Boston and New York City schools have started, while other school districts are following suit. Some experts, however, argue that there could be hurdles to removing the filler from school lunches entirely due to its prevalence and the red tape involved in meat processing, according to the Huffington Post. (Even if schools buy meat without the filler, for example, it's possible that it may still be added when it's processed into meatballs or patties.)
 
How unhealthy is pink slime?
Some say that it's probably no worse than other processed meat products such as hot dogs, breakfast patties or chicken nuggets, according to The Atlantic. Those types of foods also can contain processed leftover scrap meat -- and, argues the author (Flash in the Pan writer Ari LeVaux), may be more likely to include bits of bone and other nonmeat morsels since the meat is often removed mechanically. (Beef can't be processed this way because of the risk of Mad Cow disease -- remember that?) Your best bet is to limit how much your kid eats and voice your concern for greater openness about how food is processed and labeled.

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