Written by Dr. Cynthia Paulis Tuesday, 20 March 2012 14:50
An Anton Newspapers investigation into a national story that impacts our local schools
Have you ever wondered what's in that hamburger patty they are serving up in your child's school? You may be surprised to learn that it might not be pure beef, but meat with filler known as "pink slime." Consumer food activists and high-profile chefs have been campaigning against the use of this product often found in fast food, and McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King have now all discontinued using pink slime.
However, this year the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has plans to purchase millions of pounds of the "Lean Finely Textured Beef" (aka pink slime) for the National School Lunch Program.
This cost-cutting measure once used for prisoners is now being used for school lunches around the country. According to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), pink slime is expected to be included in more than 100 million pounds of ground beef served to 32 million school children. On March 16, Gillibrand demanded the USDA "Pull Pink Slime Beef from schools now." "If it's not good enough for fast food chains, it certainly isn't good enough for the School Meals Program," said Gillibrand in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "The time is now for the USDA to abolish pink slime from school lunches. I look forward to your attention and response to this critical issue."
In the past, when a cow was slaughtered, the prime parts were sold off and the waste products were either discarded or used for dog food. Then, in 2000, a company called Beef Products, Inc. decided to take the discarded parts of the cow which were usually high in contamination, put them through a centrifuge, compress them and spray them with ammonia gas, flash freeze them (which is supposed to kill deadly pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella), to produce a filler for meat.
The result was a pink product called "Lean Finely Textured Beef" (LBTB) or "Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings" (BLBT), which was essentially waste products, not beef, and had no nutritional value. The ammonia was permitted to be excluded from the labeling process because it was considered a processing agent and not an ingredient. Ammonia is found in the human body as a building block for proteins. It is also used in fertilizers, pesticides and cleaning solutions among other things. It is one substance that is capable of crossing the blood brain barrier. Elevated levels of ammonia can lead to impaired memory, shortened attention span, sleep disturbances, ataxia, seizures and coma. The USDA has deemed the ammonia-treated waste product LBTB or pink slime as "safe."
This is the same government organization that once said it was safe to cook hamburgers at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, until 1993 when four children died and more than 700 people became seriously ill after eating hamburgers which were tainted with E. coli. Public outrage caused the USDA to revise their safety standards and now all ground meat must be cooked at a minimum of 155 degrees Fahrenheit. (Weren't we also told by the government that it was "safe" to breathe the toxic stew at Ground Zero?) The safety standards for pink slime were brought under scrutiny and became the focus of the shocking New York Times article in December 31, 2009 titled "Safety of Beef Processing Method is Questioned," and have recently come under fire again. In the article, Carl S. Custer, a former USDA microbiologist and other scientists expressed their concerns about the safety of LBTB.
After touring Beef Products, Inc., Gerald Zirnstein, another microbiologist, coined the name "pink slime," which stuck because it looked more like Jell-o than meat. According to the article, in an email to colleagues as early as 2002, Zirnstein said, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling. I have a 2-year-old son and you better believe I don't want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school." Both Zirnstein and Custer classified the trimmings as a "high-risk product." Their warnings were dismissed by the food inspection service. In spite of numerous warnings by Zirnstein and Custer, the USDA ruled that Lean Beef Trimmings were safe.
"The word in the office was that the undersecretary, JoAnn Smith, pushed it through and that was that," Custer said in the Times article. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, Smith had deep ties with the beef industry, serving as president of both the Florida Cattlemen's Association and of the National Cattlemen's Association. "Scientists in D.C. were pressured to approve this stuff with minimal safety approval," Zirnstein said. After Smith left government she became a board member at Beef Products, Inc., the same company that manufacturers pink slime. She is currently on the board at Tyson Foods. It is believed that she influenced the new labeling of pink slime as a "meat product." In 2004, some school lunch officials nationwide increased the amount of Beef Products Inc.'s meat allowed in its hamburgers to 15 percent up from the previous 5 percent allowed, all to lower their costs. In other words, more pink slime went into our kids' hamburgers. However, this ammonia-treated beef had problems. With the higher levels of ammonia, which was used to kill pathogens, the meat smelled and tasted so bad that the company started lowering the level of ammonia. The problem is that it is not sufficiently at a level to kill E. coli and Salmonella. In fact, two 27,000-pound batches of meat were detected with E. coli and Salmonella contamination in August 2005. Fortunately, the bad meat was discovered before it ended up in school cafeterias that participated in the School Lunch Program.
It turns out Beef Products, Inc., was exempted from inspections because their process had been considered safe. After The Times presented evidence of contamination, the Agricultural Department conducted its own investigation. On March 7, 2012, the USDA issued a memo on their website titled "Response to Ammoniated Beef Inquiries," and, once again, touted it to be "generally recognized as safe."
Calls by Anton Newspapers to the number listed were not returned. Anton Newspapers' editors reached out to their individual school districts in Nassau County on this issue. Each school district purchases its own meat, but while each can confirm if it's provided by the USDA, they often don't know if it is BPI meat.
On March 14, it was announced by the USDA that school districts enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, which are contractually obligated to suppliers who use pink slime, will be able to opt out of their contracts this coming fall. Under the new modification, schools can now choose between 95 percent lean beef made with the product or less bulk ground beef that contains traces of ammoniated-infused product if they want to remain in the School Lunch Program.
Patricia Daley-Jimenez, director of food services at the Great Neck School District, acknowledged that the beef her district uses might contain pink slime, as part of the food donated to her district by the USDA. In terms of the ammonia, she explained that "the additives are useful in preventing E. coli, which is helpful in protecting the safety of young children." Well, maybe not so much.
Rosemary Johnson, assistant superintendent for business of the Manhasset School District, commented, "Although it has been reported that millions of pounds of pink slime will continue to be used in the National Lunch Program, Whitson's, Manhasset School District's food service provider, does not use this now-infamous ground beef extender. The Manhasset program continues to be on the cutting-edge for utilization of only quality ingredients, the maintenance of high nutritional standards and the freshest and tastiest preparations."
A Mineola official stated the district researched pink slime in 2010 and last year concluded that it would be irresponsible to have beef trimmings in its food. Mineola uses deli products provided by USDA, but not any of their beef products. Their meat service provider is Whitson.
Whitson Culinary Group services many of the school districts and reported that its beef supplier, New Jersey based Wonder Meats Inc. does not and will not carry pink slime from Beef Products Inc. (BPI)
"Whitson does not purchase any products using the ammonia-treated beef, BPI products," Whitson marketing vice president, Holly Von Seggern, told Anton Newspapers. "Our meat provider has assured us that they're an all-natural product. A number of our districts, not all, are using USDA commodities, however," Von Seggern said. School districts that use USDA beef cannot control where the beef originates from, according to Von Seggern.
Kevin Wurtz, deputy superintendent of the Glen Cove School District, reports, "The Glen Cove School District buys beef from the USDA in compliance with the National School Lunch Program, and as such we have every reason to believe that the food product we obtain is safe." He adds, "All of the beef is used to make hamburgers and tacos." The USDA allows up to 6 percent of pink slime to be present in beef without being on the label, and Von Seggern reports that up to 20 percent of USDA beef can consist of pink slime.
On learning of the government's decision to buy ammonium hydroxide treated beef, North Shore School District Food Service Consultant Julia Van Loon of JGVL Associates, Inc. had this response, "At first I was mortified, but it shouldn't surprise us; it represents the nature of the food supply of this country. We buy our beef from the commercial market, not the government. If we could buy meat directly from the source, without it changing hands so many times, we absolutely would. The USDA needs to present us with 100 percent ground beef." She added that, more importantly, North Shore buys foods without any filler, since most of the allergies and related health problems are often associated with soy products and other fillers. "I'm proud to say we buy 100 percent ground beef without any filler," Van Loon said.
Last month, President Obama signed The Food Safety Modernization Act into law. On hand was one of the champions of the bill, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who stated, "With this new bill and new law, the food supply in America will be safer and it's absolutely essential that we focus as a nation on having the safest food supply in the world." Standing by his side was Nancy Donley who urged Durbin, two decades ago, for stronger safety laws. Her son Alex died from kidney failure after eating a tainted hamburger in 1993.
One thing Anton Newspapers discovered was that while some school districts assumed they were buying beef that was pure because they were dealing with the USDA or even local distributors, this was not necessarily the case. The government, which requires labels on all food products describing the ingredients, doesn't require this ammoniated beef to be listed as an ingredient in the beef that is sold. The distributors oftentimes are not aware what is in the beef because they are just the middleman.
The National School Lunch Program is cutting costs by allowing beef waste products which have potential risks for E. coli and Salmonella to be sprayed with ammonia hydroxide and incorporated into our children's hamburgers as filler and declaring it "safe." Meantime Beef Products Inc. makes millions off a product labeling it as "beef" when that couldn't be further from the truth.
The irony is the government has passed so many laws in an effort to keep children safe, usually after a tragedy occurs and a parent steps up and says "Never again" and a grassroots movement develops. Since the '80s we have seen drunk driving laws, mandatory seat belt laws, car seat and bicycle helmet laws enacted, all in an effort to protect children. Yet, the government is willing to play Russian roulette with the food our children eat at school.
And this time the bullets are made of pink slime.
Here is a list of how some other school districts covered by Anton Newspapers, responded. Read their responses carefully. If their meat comes from the USDA and is part of the School Lunch Program, and has originated from BPI (which many districts don't know), chances are good that it contains pink slime.
Nancy Cara, district lunch manager for the Carle Place School District:
"We get our beef from the USDA. We have it processed into our hamburgers and we do that through TA Morris, a company who processes government beef. Whether it has pink slime in it or not, I don't know, and from what I'm reading it's a very small percent. We're still gathering information. As part of a co-op, we do group purchasing and I'm hoping to learn more at our meetings. Does anybody know? You get USDA, you just go by their approval."
The Elmont School District confirmed that its beef supplier is the federal government. District officials stated that it operates its own beef processor, but would not indicate if its meat came from BPI. District Superintendent Al Harper said, "The district does not know if Elmont's meat is a product of BPI." He concluded that the school district will investigate and hopes the USDA will work to remedy the situation. "This is very unsettling," Harper responded. "When you look at the bad meat that was showcased in the media for what it is and look at the combination of beef scraps and cow connective tissue, you're not sure whether this will be nutritious for our children, which we are always concerned about. We hope the USDA will put forth more information for school districts like us to help."
The Farmingdale School District said they have contacted every vendor who provides food for each school in the district. From Pete Guaraldi, Farmingdale School District's publicist: "All the vendors have assured the district that 'pink ammonia' (sic) is not used in any of the food products served to students and that each food product offered to students meets or exceeds USDA regulatory standards. The safety and well-being of our students is the district's highest priority." (Editor's note: There is no such thing as "pink ammonia," and when informed of such, Mr. Guaraldi said the school administration still stands by the statement, in effect, leaving it unclear whether the Farmingdale school lunches are actually free of pink slime.)
Garden City Union Free School District's Food Services Director Dianna Intintoli explained that ammonia-treated beef is not served at any of the schools within the district. "When we contacted the major beef providers that supply the beef products to our schools, they responded they do not use ammonia in the production process for ground beef," Intintoli said.
At the Herricks schools, food service manager Annmarie Cacciatore said, "We do all our own cooking and we are self-sustained. We obtain meat from a company, and according to all reports ammonia hydroxide in the meat is FDA approved. However, as soon as we receive delivery we immediately boil it and let all the oil and fats run out of the meat. We then mix it with a Taco mix and let it cook for hours at a time before we serve it in our lunch menu, and it is one of our biggest and best sellers." Cacciatore added, "We also understand the ammonia hydroxide is good for the meat because it is unfriendly to E. coli." Meat suppliers to Herricks schools are TA Morris, Mivila and Schrier.
Nancy Yates, food service director for the Hicksville School District: "We don't use that product at all. It is disgusting…we have not used that product. We are in the clear – you can put down that we serve better than pink slime."
Tracey Gilet, Jericho School District Food Manager stated, "Meals containing beef have been removed from April's menu and this will remain in effect throughout the balance of this year. The USDA continues to maintain this is a safe product. The ammonia hydroxide process is a safeguard against pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella. The option to purchase beef next year without this additive will be based upon review of all the data collected."
A representative for Chartwells Food Management, provider of the school lunch program in the Levittown School District said, "Recently, there have been many negative articles discussing the use of ammonia in beef. This is a very complex scientific process of using ammonia hydroxide to manufacture beef in order to ensure food safety. When we contacted the major beef providers that supply beef products to [our] schools, they responded that they do not use ammonia in the production process for ground beef."
Alan Adcock, deputy superintendent for the Massapequa School District said that the Massapequa schools "receive government commodity beef through the national school lunch program," as do, he added "95 percent" of the school districts on Long Island.
Christopher Cott, Oyster Bay-East Norwich assistant superintendent for business and grounds stated, "We do use USDA beef, however it is sent to Tyson to be converted into meatballs, burgers and taco meat. This beef is part of the School Lunch Program. We do not purchase any beef outside the USDA product." Gary Mickelson, spokesperson for Tyson told Anton Newspapers, "The fully-cooked ground beef products we provide the local school districts do not contain Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), which is the product that has been the focus of so much media attention lately."
A spokesperson for the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District said that their district uses outside vendor Whitson, which does not use USDA meat.
Asked about the ingredient, a spokeswoman for the Roslyn School District said, "We don't have enough information to be able to answer that question at this point." She added that the Roslyn district, "like other schools" is investigating whether or not they use the ingredient. The school district also issued a March 7 statement from the USDA regarding "ammoniated beef inquiries."
The district's food service department reports that the Sewanhaka Central High School District participates in the National School Lunch Program as well as its breakfast program and receives beef from the USDA. The district will bring the matter of using USDA beef commodities to the district's wellness committee.