They say a picture paints a thousand words, and those unappetizing coils of the beef product dubbed "pink slime" have certainly spoken volumes to consumers throughout the country. The material, which also goes by the industry name "lean, finely textured beef," has been used in beef products for decades and has been deemed safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But recently, there's been a national outcry against it, with many retailers, including Massachusetts-based chain Stop & Shop, pulling items containing lean, finely textured beef from their shelves. Also, many school districts in the state that use beef containing LFTB have said they plan to discontinue it in the future.
The company that produces the trimmings, Beef Products Inc., recently announced it was closing three of its four plants. The ground beef processor AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday, citing the uproar over pink slime as the cause.
Some school districts, including Milford, Seymour, Trumbull and Fairfield, said, to their knowledge, the beef they used didn't contain the finely textured beef. Others, including Monroe and Shelton, said they used products with LFTB in at least some of the foods served in the district, but would eliminate the products from their menus in the coming school year.
The state Department of Administrative Services, which procures some of the food for school lunch programs in the state through the USDA, said it provides meat with the additive to 240 educational clients in the state, including school districts and private and parochial schools.
Eileen Faustich, director of food services for Milford Public Schools, said though her district doesn't use the product, she's surprised at the outcry. "It really is a product that's been used for over 20 years and been used safely," she said. "I'm not sure who coined 'pink slime.' It's really being portrayed terribly."
So why the sudden anti-slime movement? Well, a lot of it has to do with that unfortunate nickname, said Andrea Valenti, Sodexo clinical nutrition manager at Bridgeport Hospital. "I think if people had kept using 'lean, finely textured beef'' to describe it, it wouldn't have been so bad," she said.
The photos of the icky-looking beef trimmings also don't help. Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture's claims that the additive is safe, Valenti said the images of the worm-like chunks of the product are too powerful to ignore. "It definitely is appalling to someone just looking at those images," she said.
But Valenti and others said there's a lot of misinformation about the product that could be cleared up with a quick primer on lean, finely textured beef. (Note: the American Meat Institute, a national trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat in the United States, has released a statement asking the media to stop using the phrase "pink slime.")
LFTB is basically beef trimmings treated with ammonium hydroxide to destroy bacteria. The use of ammonium hydroxide is likely a big part of what has people riled, Valenti said. She pointed out, however, the gas was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1974, and is used in many other products, including puddings and baked goods.
Public opinion against LFTB has been spreading for a while said Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association that represents food retailers nationwide. Part of the reason that this has become such an issue is that consumers are more concerned about things like nutrition and food safety than they were in the past, Thesmar said. "We've been seeing for a while that people are definitely more aware of what they're eating and want to know what's in their food," she said.
If there's any silver lining to this, Faustich said, it's that this flap shows Americans are concerned about what they're putting into their bodies. "It may be getting us back to thinking about where our food comes from," she said.
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