Food in most Missouri schools doesn't have filler dubbed 'pink slime'

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Corby Murphy takes a bite out of his cheeseburger Tuesday at Central Junior High School in Cape Girardeau. "They're good," Murphy said of the school's cheeseburgers. (Laura Simon)

Cheeseburgers were on the menu Tuesday at Cape Girardeau Central Junior High School. What wasn't there, according to school food service workers and the school district's nutrition services coordinator, was "pink slime," a term that's become familiar to many, from grocery store shoppers to school principals to fast-food restaurant chain executives.

A choice whether to include beef containing a filler made from leftover pieces sterilized with heat and chemicals -- what's known as "pink slime" -- on lunch menus is coming this fall for many schools around the country. In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would offer schools a choice to order beef products with or without the filler, also known as lean, finely textured beef.

Despite safety declarations by the government since the 1970s, when the food industry began using ammonium hydroxide for sterilization, droves of parents called schools with concerns over possible inclusion of the filler in school meals after news reports earlier this spring questioned its use. Those calls prompted schools to ask the USDA for options. Also throughout the country, national fast-food chains and numerous grocery stores have stopped carrying "pink slime" beef.

David Kapfer serves Daevon Hudson a cheeseburger as he goes through the lunch line Tuesday at Central Junior High School in Cape Girardeau. (Laura Simon)

Schools now have a choice of ordering beef containing more fat through the USDA school lunch program or continuing to use the beef containing the filler, which is leaner.

Junior high students gave mixed responses to which they would rather eat.

"They are going to feed us what they want to feed us anyway," said Elizabeth Criddle, an eighth-grader. But she would probably choose to eat the fattier beef if both were in front of her, she said. The thought of chemicals in beef sounded gross to her.

Not that students should worry, say food service and nutrition directors in area school districts like Lisa Elfrink in Cape Girardeau. "Pink slime" isn't a concern in most schools locally or throughout the state because most schools order their beef through sources monitored by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and those products do not contain the filler.

"As far as we know, there is not any," Elfrink said.

Food industry representatives say that regardless, the lean, finely textured beef is completely safe. The name "pink slime" has only been used to cast the food in a harsh light, industry groups say. When the use of the filler became a large-scale controversy, the wholesale price of beef trimmings used in the product dropped sharply, leading to production shutdowns. The meat industry also warns the production stoppages could lead to higher prices at supermarkets.

"At a time when so many Americans struggle to put a healthy, nutritious meal on their family's dinner table, the unfounded mischaracterization of lean, finely textured beef as 'pink slime' is unconscionable," said National Meat Association CEO Barry Carpenter said in a recent news release. "I am sure the public is not aware of how widespread and potentially devastating the consequences of allowing public misperception to trump sound nutritional science are."

Questionable ingredients can be re-evaluated by the USDA or local health departments, depending on the product, Elfrink said.

A few parents have contacted Cape Girardeau schools with questions about beef products with fillers, according to Elfrink and Alan Bruns, assistant principal of the junior high, and were informed that it is unlikely any "pink slime" is in school meals.

Some Missouri school districts have sent letters to parents or put out news releases stating no fillers are in their beef products. More communication on "pink slime" has come in the form of letters from food suppliers to school districts, Elfrink said, and the letters always claim no ammonia-treated fillers are included in their products.

"I think the processing of it is the issue, not necessarily the use of the trimmings of the beef," Elfrink said. She said thinks the use of the filler will eventually be abandoned by food companies because of all the negative attention, which is in a way concerning, she said, because that could mean an increase in beef prices. That could come in addition to increases prompted by changes in federal guidelines for school-provided meals.

Those changes, she said, "are a huge shift for us."

Larger portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and scaled-down portions of meats are in those guidelines. Schools have been moving toward the complete changes in small steps since 2010. Whole-wheat pastas are now on the menu in Cape Girardeau schools, and students are starting to accept that, said Vivian Smith, a food service worker for the district.

"They took it OK," she said. "But sweet potato fries will be the hardest thing."

Bruns said the biggest challenge with feeding the students is finding what foods appeal to them with both flavor and appearance.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

Caruthers Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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