Decision to Include Pink Slime in School Lunches Shines Spotlight on Fundamental Conflicts at USDA

I wish could say that this is fiction, but it’s not.

Pink slime — that ammonia-treated meat in a bright Pepto-bismol shade — may have been rejected by fast food joints like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, but is being brought in by the tons for the nation’s school lunch program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is purchasing 7 million pounds of the “slime” for school lunches, The Daily reports. Officially termed “Lean Beef Trimmings,” the product is a ground-up combination of beef scraps, cow connective tissues and other beef trimmings that are treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. It’s then blended into traditional meat products like ground beef and hamburger patties.

We originally called it soylent pink,” microbiologist Carl Custer, who worked at the Food Safety Inspection Service for 35 years, 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 and microbiologist Gerald Zernstein concluded in a study that the trimmings are a “high risk product,” but Zernstein tells The Daily that “scientists in D.C. were pressured to approve this stuff with minimal safety approval” under President George H.W. Bush’s administration. The USDA asserts that its ground beef purchases “meet the highest standard for food safety.”

USDA school lunch policy is fundamentally conflicted, as is all USDA policy. In essence, the agency serves two masters whose agendas are frequently at odds with each other — (1) the physical health of the public and (2) the financial health of agribusiness.

This pink slime, aka “lean beef trimmings,” is just one example of a policy decision that benefits the corporation selling the product while harming kids from homes poor enough to qualify for the federally-funded school lunch program.

This pink slime story has made the rounds on the Internet the past few days, and we discussed it yesterday in the clinical nutrition class I teach for upper division chiropractic students. Everyone in class, needless to say, considered the slime a major gross-out.

A couple of students said they thought the solution might be to transfer school lunch programs to the states, which they believed were more likely to make better decisions.

My response was that the pink slime story made it a particularly difficult day for me to be defending the federal government. However, I added that in my experience, state governments are also fully capable of making terrible decisions. And that furthermore, agriculture and food industry lobbyists operating at the state level are often better able to achieve their goals (although they clearly do quite well for themselves at the federal level, too), because people and organizations supporting policies for enhanced health or environmental protection usually don’t have the capacity to lobby effectively in 50 separate states. Corporations, of course, do have the wherewithal to do this, and thus we often see an especially un-level playing field at the state level.

Regarding the school lunch program, one point I did not think to mention to my students is that if left to their own devices, I think it is likely that some states (perhaps many) would just drop the school lunch program altogether. I live in Kansas. I frankly do not know whether, given the choice, the state would decide to save money by dropping or substantially cutting back on school lunches. Recent budgetary decisions involving resdistribution of resources from those with less (via elimination of tax credits and decreased levels of social services) to those with more (via lower taxes) lead me to assume the worst.

As a result, I am glad that there is a federal program to feed students from poor families. I just wish they would keep the pink slime off the menu.