AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s low in fat, high in protein, and a cheaper beef product alternative, but the Maine Department of Education’s school lunch program won’t be going back for seconds.
It’s officially called lean finely textured beef but most people know it better as “pink slime,” a beef filler made from waste meat and fat and purveyed by supermarkets, fast food franchises and school cafeterias.
On Thursday, the Education Department announced it would not accept “pink slime” beef products in Maine schools next year.
While some detractors refer to it as “soylent pink” — a reference to classic science fiction movie “Soylent Green” — lean finely textured beef has been deemed safe and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which unwittingly sparked an uproar when it announced last week it would buy 7 million pounds of the beef filler to use in the National School Lunch Program.
“This wasn’t anything we were even aware of until reports about it came out a week or two ago,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
“Our school nutrition department was getting a lot of calls,” he said. “They wanted to know if it was safe and if they’d gotten that kind of beef.”
Apparently the USDA got a lot of calls, too.
“The USDA announced after the initial furor about it that they’d allow schools to choose whether they get it or not,” Connerty-Marin said. “And we’ve asked them not to send us any LFTB beef for the next school year.”
While that’s mostly good news to Christine Greenier, director of school nutrition at RSU 22 — which includes Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh — it also poses a problem.
“I found out just today … and that’s great,” said Greenier. “Would we prefer to have beef not processed this way? Of course, we would, but the problem is we have 1,400 pounds of beef sitting in our freezers.”
LFTB is created by mixing cartilage, beef trimmings and connective tissue. This is done by warming the trim and getting rid of the fat in centrifuges, creating beef that is approximately 94 percent to 97 percent lean, according to lean finely textured beef maker Beef Products Inc. Since beef trim is known for carrying bacteria, it is then sprayed with ammonium hydroxide gas, which kills bacteria and adds reddish color. Then it’s liquefied, frozen, cut into bricks and shipped to meat processors, which mix it with ground beef, ground pork and veal to produce low-fat ground beef and processed meat products.
Some published estimates peg the amount of beef containing the product sold in grocery stores at 70 percent nationwide, but recently stores including Wal-Mart and Kroger announced they no longer will sell it. Two months ago, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King announced they no longer would use the filler in their products.
Because the product is not considered a separate ingredient by the USDA, which approved the process creating it in 2001, beef containing it doesn’t have to be labeled as such. That means there is no way of knowing how much lean finely textured beef if any has been supplied to Maine schools over the years.
“Some beef has it and some doesn’t. People want to know now and the USDA can’t tell us,” Connerty-Marin said. “We probably have received it in our previous USDA meat allotment, but we don’t know how much or who got it.
“It’s likely not much, if any, because schools in Maine buy 85 to 90 percent of their products from sources other than the USDA.”
So where does that leave Maine schools?
“Opinions are still differing on its quality and use, but LFTB has been in use for 20 years and is not a health threat,” said Greenier. “At least in the short term, we will continue to use the beef we have, as we have been.”
Connerty-Marin said the USDA will ensure that beef products are free of the product in future shipments.
“I’m guessing they’ll have some kind of system set up to differentiate between LFTB beef and non-LFTB beef,” he said. “But I’m not privy to how they’ll do that at this time.”