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March 13, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Good news and bad news about “pink slime” meat

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Where’s the beef? Seattle Public Schools says there’s no “pink slime” in theirs. File school lunch photo by Ken Lambert/Seattle Times

The hubbub over so-called “pink slime” in the nation’s ground beef supply has heated up this past week with reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying 7 million pounds of the stuff for use in school lunches.

An ABC news report defines the beef “slime” as waste trimmings that are simmered and centrifuged to separate fat from muscle. “Once only used in dog food and cooking oil, the trimmings are now sprayed with ammonia so they are safe to eat and added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler,” the report said. McDonald’s stopped using the stuff last year, and celeb chef Jamie Oliver, a promotor of healthier school lunches, has campaigned against its use.

The good news, if you don’t like the sound of it? Checking in with the Seattle Public Schools, spokeswoman Teresa Wippel says their lunchrooms are pink-slime-free. Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, initially said none of the state’s public schools should be serving meals made with that meat, technically known as “lean finely textured beef,” but added later that districts purchase meat from a variety of sources and they can’t say for sure that none contains the material. (One of the state’s major processors, Kings Command, has written a letter stating that it does not use that particular beef in its manufacturing, Olson wrote.)

More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition trying to ban it from all school lunches.

Then, the bad news: It may not be in the Seattle school lunches, but it’s a lot of other places, and manufacturers aren’t required to label it. A recent ABC report says that the product is used in 70 percent of supermarket ground beef.

Is this a problem?

After all, if beef trim is “notorious for carrying pathogenic bacteria – especially, E. coli O157:H7 and its close cousins, the non-O157 STEC bacteria,” as Food Safety News put it, it seems you’re better off having it treated before you eat it — if you’re going to eat it. Food Safety News noted that “ammonium hydroxide has been used as an antimicrobial agent in meat for more than 40 years,” and concluded that the “slime” has an image problem but is safe to eat.

Still, what if you don’t want to eat it? That’s part of what bothered leading food safety lawyer Bill Marler when I called him up for his take.

His problem isn’t the use of the product per se, “it’s that it’s not being labeled” and consumers can’t make their own choices about whether to avoid it. If you take away the issue of palatability, or “the ick factor,” he said, the ammonia treatment is “a product that is commonly used as a processing aid on carcasses anyway,” and the company that produces it is testing the trim “far more rigorously” than most. But no, he wouldn’t eat it himself, because he doesn’t eat hamburgers at all after his years in the food-safety business, or let his kids eat them. (Personally, when eating, it’s also hard for me to reject issues of “palatability” or “ick factor.”)

ABC News asked around and reported that Costco, Whole Foods, and Kroger do not carry meat that includes “pink slime,” though this report says some of Kroger’s meat does. Costco’s vice president of quality assurance was quite explicit about rejecting the product, telling ABC that “Anything that we sell at Costco we want to explain its origins, and I personally don’t know how to explain trim treated with ammonia in our ground beef.”

Anywhere you shop, says ABC, if the meat is certified USDA organic, it’s slime-free. You can also skip the slime by buying from local supermarkets that grind their own beef, or, if you’ve got the equipment and the time, grinding your own at home.

Updated 3/15 to note that OSPI now says it can’t be sure there is no “pink slime” in state schools.

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