SALT LAKE CITY — Utah school officials said they're not quite sure if any schools are serving up "pink slime" at the lunch counter. But they have a ready response to anyone trying to sell them school lunch meat with the controversial product: Thanks, but no thanks.
Photos of the stuff have gone viral since a petition to ban the South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc.'s Lean Finely Textured Beef was posted online early last week. More than 227,000 signatures were added from across the country to get the highly processed product off grocery store shelves, and specifically out of school lunches.
"To my knowledge, we don't actually have any of that particular brand of meat in our state right now," said Luann Elliott, director of child nutrition programs at the Utah State Office of Education. "But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we couldn't."
She said most food contracts are complete through the end of the current school year and there is no way of knowing how much of the exploited ingredient exists in what's been purchased.
And so far, Elliott said parents of Utah school children have not complained.
That's not the case elsewhere.
In response to requests from school districts across the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it will offer more choices to schools in the National School Lunch Program when it comes to purchases of ground beef products. The agency stands by its claim that it only buys products that are "safe, nutritious and affordable — including products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef."
It also urges individuals to consult "science-based information on the safety and quality of this product."
"It's 100 percent meat and they also add an antibiotic to it," Elliott said, adding that the product is approved by the USDA.
Technically, the low-cost ingredient is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated and spun to remove most of the fat and then compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. Prior to the finished product, the mixture is exposed to "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill potential bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
The product was dubbed "pink slime" by critics because of its appearance.
"It's not just meat that is made for schools," said Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley. "This stuff has been on the store shelves for more than 20 years. It doesn't pose a health risk. It's not like people are getting sick from it. It's just that people have had a lack of information and now it is coming out."
The USDA contributes just 20 percent of the food used in meals that each school within the National School Lunch Program prepares for students. The other 80 percent is purchased by individual school districts from private vendors.
Just like any district within the state, a portion of Granite's meat was purchased from a USDA commodity sale, but it isn't very well marked and officials can't determine what it contains beyond what the label suggests.
"It says ground beef on the label, just like in the grocery store," Horsley said. "It gives the percentage of lean versus fat, but it doesn't list specific ingredients." Based on the media attention the product has received, he said the district would decline to purchase anything containing Lean Finely Textured Beef in the future.
Davis School District Nutritional Services Director Pam Tsakalos agrees and said the Davis district has already chosen to purchase more expensive meat products, to avoid anything that is chemically altered, she said.
"We'd rather not have to worry about it," Tsakalos said. She would like to see the USDA either remove any and all products containing the Lean Finely Textured Beef from their list of foods available for purchase, or at least make it known which products those are.
After some research, she said most of what's being served in Utah schools was supplied this year by Central Valley Meat Company and American Beef Packers, neither of which use the low-cost filler.
McDonald's and other major restaurant chains opted last year to discontinue its use of the ammonia-treated beef.
Houston resident Bettina Siegel, who originally posted the petition slamming the meat product, said she couldn't put up with kids not having a choice in the matter.
"That's what upset me," she said. "This idea that children are passively sitting in a lunch room eating what the government sees fit to feed them and McDonald's has chosen not to use it, but the government is still feeding it to them."
By law, the USDA has two primary responsibilities as part of its mandate to provide safe and nutritious food to the American people — ensuring its safety and providing assistance through various programs, including the National School Lunch Program. That program received major improvements on Wednesday, including a mandate for more vegetables and fewer calories to be served to school children across the nation.
Contributing: Associated Press