'Pink slime' debate oozes into school lunch rooms
"I'm not arguing that that stuff is unsafe. I'm arguing that it's the lowest common denominator." That was the clearest explanation a food scientist gave this week for the reason "pink slime" is suddenly in the news for parents worried about school lunches.
"It sounds disgusting," said food policy expert Marion Nestle, who also made the above comment about the unappetizing nickname that made it easier for the food movement to flex its muscles over this issue of removing ammonia-treated ground beef filler from supermarket shelves and school lunch trays. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday it will offer schools a choice in ground beef purchases in response to requests from districts.
The controversy centers on "lean finely textured beef," a low-cost ingredient in ground beef made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated to about 100 F and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product also is exposed to "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
The resulting pinkish substance, shown above, is later blended into traditional ground beef and hamburger patties.
It has been on the market for years, and federal regulators say it meets standards for food safety. It's in those pre-made hamburger patties in the supermarket, it's in school lunch tacos and one industry officials estimates it is in at least half of the ground meat and burgers in the United States. But advocates for wholesome food have denounced the process as a potentially unsafe and unappetizing example of industrialized food production.
But are we willing to pay for wholesome foods? Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver speaks with passion about his efforts to break school kids’ dependence on chicken nuggets and sweetened, flavored milks. His arguments were falling on deaf ears in Los Angeles last year, where he was trying to convince public schools to let him work his magic in their cafeterias.
And when new school guidelines were put before Congress to cut sodium in subsidized meals for low-income children and require more servings of dark green vegetables and limit starchy vegetables to one cup a week so that schools can’t serve fries every day, they were blocked. That new school lunch would cost 14 cents extra per meal, and an additional $7 billion over five years. Not to mention all the big processed food businesses like frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets that would have been losing business.
We'd love for our school lunches to have free-range chickens and organic vegetables, but are we willing to pay for that? Until we are, pink slime and its equivalent will continue to end up in the school cafeteria.
UPDATE: AP's food editor J.M. Hirsch conducted a taste taste of a burger made of pink slime compared to pure 85% lean ground beef and concludes "It was not bad. But nor was it good. It was flat. I added more salt. No. It was simply one-dimensional. And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn’t leave me wanting another bite."
--Sharon Kennedy Wynne
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