Is It Really Mystery Meat? What Can You Do? Pink Slime in School Meals

March 13, 2012

By Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications

School food advocates, parents and media have been abuzz the last week with the news that the USDA has purchased 7 million pounds of “pink slime” for inclusion in school meals. Also sold under the name “boneless lean beef trimmings,” this beef filler is composed of connective tissue and other beef parts that are processed and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria and prevent food-borne contamination. 

While fast food giants McDonald’s and Taco Bell stopped using pink slime after public outcry earlier this year, the USDA has approved the product as safe for consumption. Ammonium hydroxide is considered a processing agent and is not required to be listed on food labels. Generally, the “pink slime” is mixed with other ground beef and processed into foods such as hamburgers. 

How bad is it? It might technically be safe but it’s certainly not something we want to see served in the cafeteria. We need to move school meals in the direction of real, less-processed food, not the type of highly processed products that need to be treated with ammonia. I hope the public outcry around this issue brings us one step closer to a food system that supports schools in serving healthy, less-processed meals with ingredients we understand. 

Dr. John Torres, quoted in USA Today, explains it like this: “The big concern is that this is a chemically processed food, it doesn't have nearly the nutrients of normal beef. . . It's one of those things, 'Do I want my child to have this?' On a short-term, moderate basis: maybe. On a long-term basis: no.”

As a parent, I was relieved to learn that Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where my son attends kindergarten, does not include “pink slime” in the food it serves. CPS procures its beef from J.T.M. Food Group. Brian Hofmeier, senior director of school sales for J.T.M. Food Group confirmed that the food processor, “does not use ammonium hydroxide in [their] process and [they] do not purchase material from any suppliers that use ammonium hydroxide in their process.”

It’s good to know that some districts are avoiding the “slime” but many are not, as evidenced by the 7 million pound USDA purchase. 

What can you do about the issue? We urge everyone who cares about healthy school to:

Talk with your school food service director. Learn what the school food leaders in your district are doing to meet nutritional guidelines and make food healthy and appealing to students.

Raise your voice. HSC friend Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray has created a petition calling for an end to pink slime in school food. You can learn more and add your name here.

Learn about school food innovation efforts. Learn more about efforts to transform school food through HSC’s upcoming webinars and events on school food innovation. These exciting discussions provide a national policy perspective and highlight the efforts of on-the-ground players who are making changes with important and far-reaching results. For more information about school food, check out our latest webinar and event series

The effort to create a new future for school food is about more than one ingredient. But in this case, one ingredient with a particularly appalling nickname is creating an uproar that can help us all think about how important it is to serve healthy, real food for lunch.