By Mike Lillis - 03/23/12 05:28 PM EDT
A growing chorus of House Democrats is urging the Obama administration to prohibit schools from serving "pink slime" to America's schoolchildren.
Dozens of Democrats have endorsed a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) contending the controversial substance — a mix of beef scraps treated with bacteria-killing ammonia and added to ground-beef products – is unfit for consumption in the nation's schools.
Spearheaded by Rep. Chellie Pingree (Maine), the letter was endorsed by 40 other Democrats, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), John Lewis (Ga.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
The USDA this month announced it will offer schools the option of purchasing ground beef without the product, which is officially known as "lean finely textured beef." The agency emphasized that it deems the product safe, but launched the new policy in response to concerns from numerous school districts.
"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 in a statement announcing the change. "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."
But the Democratic critics say the "opt out" policy doesn't go far enough. Characterizing the product as "slurry meant for animal feed," the lawmakers are urging a complete ban in the nation's schools.
The lawmakers said they're concerned the USDA's policy will create a "two-tier" system under which the wealth of the school district will determine the quality of the food.
"If pink slime laced ground beef is less expensive to make, we are very concerned that lower funded districts will be forced to use it," the lawmakers wrote to Vilsack. "Creating a two-tiered school-lunch program where kids in less affluent communities get served this low-grade slurry is wrong."
Pingree and other critics of the product, manufactured by Beef Products, Inc., say it's made up largely of non-meat tissues, so it shouldn't be packaged as meat. Some critics also question the effectiveness of the ammonia treatments in killing e. coli, Salmonella and other meat-born pathogens.
The meat industry has defended its use of the product, arguing that lean finely textured beef is "100 percent beef product … that yields an additional 10-12 pounds of lean, nutritious beef" from every cow, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
"The production of lean finely textured beef prevents lean, nutritious beef from being wasted," NCBA President J.D. Alexander said in a recent statement.
The Democrats disagree, noting that several fast-food chains — including McDonald's and Burger King — have recently banned the substance in their hamburgers.
"If these fast food chains won't serve pink slime," the lawmakers wrote, "why should school cafeterias?"