Department of Agriculture to offer beef without 'pink slime' to schools

Facing increasing pressure over its embrace of "pink slime," the Obama administration announced Thursday that it will offer schools ground beef absent the controversial product.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) reiterated that it deems the ground-beef filler — officially known as "lean finely textured beef" — to be perfectly safe. Nevertheless, recent concerns from school districts nationwide led officials to revise its procedures to offer other ground-beef options, the agency said.

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"USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable — including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef," the agency said Thursday in a statement. "However, due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products."

The agency "will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef," USDA added.

Used as a low-cost filler in countless ground-beef products nationwide, "lean finely textured beef" is a mash of beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia hydroxide to kill dangerous pathogens like E. Coli and salmonella. A former USDA meat inspector, critical of the process, applied the term "pink slime," which fueled arguments that the product is not meat and therefore shouldn't be served as such, particularly in the nation's schools.

Critics have also questioned the effectiveness of the ammonia bath in killing meat-borne pathogens.

Although concerns about the product have been raised for years, the campaign against it took off in recent months on the wings of social media and a widely dispersed Internet petition.

The issue wasn't overlooked by some on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) this week urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to quit buying the beef filler altogether.

"It is wrong to feed children a slurry that was formerly only used for dog food," Pingree wrote to Vilsack Wednesday.

The product is manufactured by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. and Cargill Meat Solutions, headquartered in Kansas.