“Pink slime.” Those two words have sparked public outrage from parents and caused a public relations nightmare for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The controversy forced Beef Product Inc., the South Carolina-based company that produces lean finely textured beef (LFTB), to shutter three of its four plants, eliminating 650 jobs in the process. The “pink slime” debacle once again put child nutrition directors in a tough place, forcing them to face angry parents and students while defending the healthfulness of their school meals program.
For its part, the USDA says it “only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable—including all products containing lean finely textured beef.” The agency has repeatedly affirmed the safety and healthfulness of the product, but after the public outrage over LFTB, the USDA allowed districts the option to purchase beef without the filler.
The deadline for districts to opt out of purchasing USDA beef with LFTB was earlier this week, and USDA officials say they won’t have a firm number of the districts that have selected this option for several weeks. But many districts have said they have changed their beef purchasing specs to eliminate LFTB from their menus.
Boulder Valley School District in Colorado is one such district. Boulder will not purchase any commodity beef from the USDA next year because of the “pink slime” controversy, according to Ann Cooper, director of foodservice. “At the point that we had to put in our commodity order, the USDA could not guarantee that next year’s beef would be ‘pink slime’ free,” Cooper says.
Cooper says the financial impact of the decision is unclear. “We still have the same amount of commodity product,” she says. “It is just being spent in different ways.” For Cooper, the big beef question is how much will the price of beef increase across the board now that BPI has taken its product out of the market.
“Beef is just more expensive,” she says. “Because BPI cut out the 15% or 20% of the beef they supply to the system, will the price [of beef] across the board increase that 15% to 20%?”
Cooper is currently trying to lock in a price for all of the district’s beef purchases for the coming year. She will only purchase beef that has not been treated with ammonia. “This school year that is just ending, in our secondary schools we used a local burger,” Cooper says. “We couldn’t afford to use it districtwide because it is significantly more money. For our ground beef that goes into things like taco filling and Bolognese, we are going to be buying through our broadline distributor, but we are specing non ammonium treated beef. The local beef is significantly more money so we can’t use it across the board.”
Paige Holland, school nutrition director at Habersham County Schools in Clarkesville, Ga., says that after receiving calls from parents, grandparents and local media that she is changing her specs to purchase beef without LFTB. "To my relief, we were not using LFTB," Holland says. "This is a federal program and we do cater to the people in our community. [Not menuing] LFTB is what the public wants. There is no research or scientific evidence that LFTB is harmful. A lot of times these things are blown out of proportion."
Last month in the Houston Independent School District, the foodservice department, which is managed by Aramark, claimed one of its suppliers, Don Lee Farms, was in breach of contract after it sent the district beef patties containing LFTB. The district’s bid specifications prohibit any variety meat, filler or extenders in foods served. In March the district issued a press release saying the beef served in schools did not contain LFTB.
“LFTB is not an acceptable variety meat, filler, or extender for a product to be served to school children,” HISD’s legal office wrote in a letter mailed to Don Lee Farms. “This constitutes a breach of the agreement and demand is made for immediate pickup of the product and refund of the purchase price.”
HISD purchased more than $500,00 dollars of patties from Don Lee containing LFTB.
Earlier this month, the district and Don Lee settled the claim. According to the Examiner, Don Lee agreed to redistribute the patties in question to other customers requesting the product.