Feds Keep Buying Ammonia-treated Ground Beef for School Lunches by David Knowles
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s continued purchase of so-called pink slime for school lunches makes no sense, according to two former microbiologists at the Food Safety Inspection Service. “I have a 2-year-old son,” microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein told The Daily. “And you better believe I don’t want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school.”
It was Zirnstein who first coined the term “pink slime” after touring a Beef Products Inc. production facility in 2002 as part of an investigation into salmonella contamination in packaged ground beef. In an email to his colleagues shortly after the visit, Zirnstein said he did not “consider the stuff to be ground beef.”
Made by grinding together connective tissue and beef scraps normally destined for dog food and rendering, BPI’s Lean Beef Trimmings are then treated with ammonia hydroxide, a process that kills pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. The resulting pinkish substance is later blended into traditional ground beef and hamburger patties.
For retired microbiologist Carl Custer, a 35-year veteran of the Food Safety Inspection Service, the idea of mixing in BPI’s Lean Beef Trimmings into more nutritious, pure ground beef was itself problematic. “We originally called it soylent pink,” Custer told The Daily. “We looked at the product and we objected to it because it used connective tissues instead of muscle. It was simply not nutritionally equivalent [to ground beef]. My main objection was that it was not meat.”
Custer said he first encountered the product — which gained fame recently as “pink slime” in part due to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver — back in the late 1990s. Despite voicing his concerns to other officials at the food inspection service, however, the USDA ruled that Lean Beef Trimmings were safe. “The word in the office was that undersecretary JoAnn Smith pushed it through, and that was that,” Custer said.
Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, Smith had deep ties with the beef industry, serving as president of both the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the of the National Cattlemen’s Association. “Scientists in D.C. were pressured to approve this stuff with minimal safety approval,” Zirnstein said.
A baseline study conducted by Zirstein and Custer classified the trimmings as a “high risk product.” Zirnstein says the food inspection service ignored their findings, and commissioned a separate study to assess the safety of BPI’s meat.
The USDA, which plans to buy 7 million pounds of Lean Beef Trimmings from BPI in the coming months for the national school lunch program, said in a statement that all of its ground beef purchases “meet the highest standard for food safety.” USDA officials also noted that the sole role of the food inspection service is to determine the overall safety of the nation’s food supply, not to make judgments on a product’s relative merits.
But Zirnstein and Custer say that the USDA now finds itself in the odd position of purchasing a product that has recently been dropped by fast-food giants McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell.
“My objection with having it in the schools is that it’s not meat,” Custer said.
In 2005, the USDA limited the amount of ammonia-treated Lean Beef Trimmings in a serving of ground beef to 15 percent, but lax labeling requirements mean that it is virtually impossible as a consumer — and for parents of children at a schools where “pink slime” is a part of lunch — to know whether a given package of ground beef or hamburger patty contains it.
“The USDA-AMS [Agricultural Marketing Service] does allow for the inclusion of BPI Boneless Lean Beef in the ground beef they procure for all their federal food programs and, according to federal labeling requirements, it is not a raw material that is uniquely labeled,” Amy Bell, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education Food Distribution Program, told The Daily in an email. “Accordingly, there is no way to tell from simply looking at a package of finished product if BPI Boneless Lean Beef is in the product mix.” Last year, the USDA said that 6.5 percent of the beef it purchased for the national school lunch program came from BPI.
In part, it’s the lack of clear labeling that rankles both Zirnstein and Custer. “It’s more like Jell-O than hamburger, plus it’s treated with ammonia, an additive that is not declared anywhere,” Custer said. “They’ve taken a processed product, without labeling it, and added it to raw ground beef,” Zirnstein said. “Science is the truth, and pink slime at this point in time is a fraudulent lie.”
Neither BPI, nor Smith, who now serves on the board of directors at Tyson Foods, responded to The Daily’s request for comment on this story. - The Daily