We recently spoke with our friend Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray about her experience creating national dialogue around lean finely textured beef (LFTB or “pink slime”) in school food. She blogged about a recent USDA purchase of LFTB for school food and created a petition that garnered more than 250,000 signatures in a week. Her efforts elevated the issue in the media, in the marketplace and in public policy, ultimately prompting a significant change in labeling and increased availability of LFTB-free beef for school food.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? How did you begin blogging? Why school food?
I’m a former lawyer but I stopped working when I had my first child. About five years later, I joined a writing workshop for stay-at-home moms and wound up getting my first piece published in Parents magazine. I realized how much I loved writing and continued to publish in magazines over the years, but I had no interest whatsoever in starting a blog – the blogosphere already seemed too crowded and I couldn’t imagine having enough to say every day or every week on a blog!
But then in February 2010 I joined our district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and started to inform myself about the National School Lunch Program and school food reform. And since I’d always been interested in food, cooking and nutrition, as well as the feeding of children, I realized suddenly that I had more than enough to say on a blog. And that’s when I started The Lunch Tray.
Why did you decide to take action on pink slime? Why does this matter for school food?
I’d known about lean, finely textured beef (LFTB, also referred to as “pink slime”) since 2009 but when I read on March 5 in The Daily that it was still used in USDA ground beef for schools (I had mistakenly thought it was no longer used in schools), I was upset about it. At first, I was just going to share the information in a post for my readers on March 6, but at the last moment – really quite spontaneously – I decided to attach a Change.org petition to the post as well.
You’ve written about many aspects of school food on The Lunch Tray. Where does this effort fit in the overall picture?
I think use of LFTB in school meat gets at a larger question of quality and cost. School districts are in a real bind, doing their best to serve nutritious meals on an extremely tight budget. That’s why, even back when Beef Products Inc. had documented safety issues with beef containing LFTB that was headed for the school lunch program (this is according to a Pulitzer Prize winning 2009 New York Times article), schools continued to use it because it shaves, reportedly, 3 cents off each pound of ground beef that contains it.
What was it like to have such prominent personalities as Jamie Oliver, Senator Robert Menendez and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree sign on to this?
For the first few days after the petition took off and went viral, I was just tied to my laptop, handling a million issues and dealing with beef industry push-back, and I felt very alone. Then suddenly I had assistance from these prominent people, publicly lending their voices to my cause, and it was very gratifying.
What has been the result of the petition? What happens now?
Almost exactly one month to the day, there has been so much change on this issue – it’s incredible. I certainly don’t tie these results directly to my petition, which focused only on school food and the USDA, but this is what has happened:
- On the ninth day of my petition, USDA made a change to its school food policy, offering school districts for the first time the option of buying ground beef with or without LFTB.
- From national media coverage, many consumers learned about LFTB for the first time and were unhappy to hear that LFTB is in, reportedly, 70 percent of all ground beef sold in the U.S., up to 15 percent of the total product, without any labeling to reflect that fact.
- A consumer outcry ensued, causing almost every major grocery chain to agree to cease selling beef with LFTB, or at least to offer customers a choice.
- Federal legislation requiring labeling for ground beef containing LFTB (the REAL Beef Act) was introduced in Congress by Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine.
- Even as that bill is pending, several processors have already received permission from USDA to voluntarily disclose LFTB on labels.
How does it feel to have such momentum in support of your effort?
Incredible. The whole experience has been just surreal.
What advice do you have for parents who want to create change?
I’ve always said there’s power in numbers, and this experience proves it in a dramatic way. So if you’re trying to change national policy, a petition like mine might be worth a try. And if you’re working on a smaller scale, like trying to get junk food out of your school cafeteria, you’ll have a much higher chance of success if you can band together with other parents before you try to take action. We all have a voice but that voice is so much more powerful when it’s joined with others – and that can mean ten parents or a quarter million petition signers!
Kudos to Bettina on all of her efforts!