The Department of Agriculture has been left scrambling to defend its intentions to buy some 7 million pounds of the beef trimmings known as "pink slime" for use in school lunches. The agency has reiterated to media outlets, including The Daily, that all food products purchased for use in the National School Lunch Program "must meet the highest standards for food safety," as quoted by USA Today.
What is pink slime?
Pink slime, also known by the slightly more appetizing sounding "boneless lean beef trimmings," is a beef byproduct. It includes many parts of the cow that are not used in other capacities, including the intestines and connective tissues. Because these are typically more easily tainted by E. coli and salmonella, the product is washed with a solution of ammonium hydroxide to sterilize it.
Is it safe to eat?
According to the USDA, yes, particularly because of the ammonia wash that the product goes through to kill bacteria. The Los Angeles Times referenced the head of the American Meat Institute, J. Patrick Boyle, who has also claimed the product is safe to eat and has maintained that not using these parts of the cattle would allow "lean, nutritious, safe beef" to be wasted.
Others are not convinced. McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King announced earlier this month they were going to discontinue using the product in their food. The U.K. has banned it for human consumption.
How did the media found out about the product?
Two former USDA scientists have publicly decried the use of pink slime, according to the New York Times. Carl S. Custer and Gerald Zernstein have at turns called the product "a cheap substitute" and "not nutritionally equivalent," to regular beef.
Will the USDA back down?
It remains to be seen. As MSNBC has pointed out, there are several online petitions calling for the USDA to change its course, but the agency is sticking to its plans, and on Monday it released another statement attesting to the product's safety.
Under federal law, the USDA is not required to distinguish between products that may or may not have pink slime included in its ingredients. Manufacturers are not required to put ammonia on a food label's list of ingredients either.
Vanessa Evans is a musician and freelance writer based in Michigan, with a lifelong interest in health and nutrition issues.
- National School Lunch Program