ALBANY, N.Y. — "Pink slime" just went from a simmer to a boil.
In less than a week this month, the stomach-turning epithet for ammonia-treated ground beef filler suddenly became a potent rallying cry by activists fighting to ban the product from supermarket shelves and school lunch trays. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to announce Thursday it will offer schools choice in ground beef purchases in response to requests from districts.
Though the term has been used pejoratively for at least several years, it wasn't until last week that social media suddenly exploded with worry and an online petition seeking its ouster from schools lit up, quickly garnering hundreds of thousands of supporters.
"It sounds disgusting," said food policy expert Marion Nestle, who notes that the unappetizing nickname made it easier for the food movement to flex its muscles over this cause.
"A lot of people have been writing about it. Therefore, more people know about it, therefore more people are queasy about it, particularly when you start thinking about how this stuff turns up in school lunches," said Nestle, a professor at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health.
The controversy centers on "lean finely textured beef," a low-cost ingredient in ground beef made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated to about 100 F and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product, made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., also is exposed to "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
There are no precise numbers on how prevalent the product is, and it does not have to be labeled as an ingredient. Past estimates have ranged as high as 70 percent; one industry officials estimates it is in at least half of the ground meat and burgers in the United States.
It has been on the market for years, and federal regulators say it meets standards for food safety. But advocates for wholesome food have denounced the process as a potentially unsafe and unappetizing example of industrialized food production.
The phrase "pink slime," coined by a federal microbiologist, has appeared in the media at least since a critical 2009 New York Times report. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has railed against it, and it made headlines after McDonald's and other major chains last year discontinued their use of ammonia-treated beef.
But "pink slime" outrage appeared to reach new heights last week amid reports by The Daily and ABC News. The Daily piece dealt with the USDA's purchase of meat that included "pink slime" for school lunches.
The story touched a nerve with Houston resident Bettina Siegel, whose blog "The Lunch Tray" focuses on kids' food. On March 6, she started an online petition on Change.org asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to "put an immediate end to the use of 'pink slime' in our children's school food."
"When I put it up, I had this moment of embarrassment," she said, "What if only 10 people sign this?"
No problem there. Supporters signed on fast. By Wednesday afternoon, the electronic petition had more than 220,000 signatures. Organizers of Change.org said the explosive growth is rare among the roughly 10,000 petitions started there every month.
Meanwhile, Google searches for "pink slime" spiked dramatically. It has become the food version of Joseph Kony, the rogue African warlord virtually unknown in the United States until this month, when an online video campaign against him caught fire.
But why is "pink slime" striking a chord now?
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