NEW YORK—What children eat at school has come under renewed scrutiny with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer demanding ammonia treated beef trimmings, or “pink slime,” be removed from New York school lunches.
Pink slime is a term coined by the New York Times for lean, finely textured beef, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Some cities opted out of the processed lean beef trimmings as soon as the USDA announced additional choices for beef products for the upcoming school year.
Though public and charter schools in New York currently still serve products that contain “pink slime,” steps are being taken to create healthier lunches for students.
“It’s a free country and people can eat however they choose to eat, but school is a place where children come to learn,” said Amie Hamlin, executive director of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food. “One of the things they learn, at least in some of the grades, is healthy nutrition and so the school should set the best example possible. I think New York City schools do a pretty good job.”
The issue, according to Hamlin, is not necessarily beef trimmings in particular, but red meat as a whole.
“The bigger issue really is that red meat is damaging to health and I think we should be focusing on that,” she said, citing a study done by the Harvard School of Public Health, which showed that red meat consumption increased the risk of cardiovascular and cancer mortality.
Hamlin currently works with New York schools to bring in more plant-based proteins to cafeteria food.
The picture of ammonia processed beef byproducts may appear unappetizing, but there have not been any reports that prove the substance is directly linked with health or behavioral problems in children. It can however, greatly increase the chances for consumers to get a food borne illness.
“Anybody, whether it’s restaurants or school food individuals, should not be buying ground beef. [Pink slime] is obviously put into ground beef as an extender,” said Arlene Spark, professor of nutrition and public health at CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College.
“When you buy ground meat, you’re getting meat from literally hundreds, if not thousands of cattle that are all mixed together. So the chances of getting food borne illness are greater because you’ve got all these animals mixed into one hamburger,” she said.
Schools commonly purchase meat from the USDA in the form of patties or other ground meat. As an alternative, Spark suggests that individuals or the schools purchase entire pieces of meat and grind it on their own.
“Our food supply is very safe, it’s really very good, but we can do a few proactive things,” she said.
Though purchasing entire pieces of meat, grinding, and cooking it in school cafeterias would likely improve the quality of food, there will be extra costs involved and tight school budgets allow little leeway for drastic improvements in food quality.
“When schools are buying products through the USDA that have lean beef trimmings in it, it’s already formed into things like hamburger patties,” said Meredith Modzelewski, communications manager of School Food FOCUS. “Schools will have to buy the lean-beef-trimmings-free meat bulk and then spend more money and time to get it processed on their own into other products.”
According to Modzelewski, because of cost issues, not every school will opt for purchasing meat free of ammonia processed lean beef trimmings. Lean beef trimmings may not be as nutritious, but they can only be 15 percent of any beef product by USDA standards.
“The most important thing to take away from this whole issue is that schools still do not have enough money to buy the kinds of food that parents would ideally like to see their kids eating at school,” she said. “Which is not to say that school lunches are not nutritious, because they are, but there are a lot of things about school lunches that I think are less than ideal to many parents.”
She also added that there are children at the poverty line who depend on free school lunches, and for whom school lunches are the most nutritious meals they eat daily since many foods outside of the school cafeteria also contain “pink slime.”
“It’s so imperative that schools be a source of healthy food that [students] can also afford,” said Modzelewski. “It’s a tricky balancing act. … Seventy percent of beef products in the whole country have lean beef trimmings in them so it may prove difficult for schools to find a source that’s as cheap as their current sources for beef if they don’t want to have the lean beef trimmings.”
Schools districts with more funding will have a larger likelihood of opting for pink-slime-free meat, while school districts more strapped for money may have to stick to the same source. Modzelewski said that FOCUS tries to help schools obtain healthier food sources within their budgets.
Given the budget issue, Spark said that a good option for schools is to substitute the lean beef trimmings with another inexpensive meat extender.
“There are other types of meat extenders. … There’s lentils, beans, bread crumbs, and rice,” she said. “Does it have to be a beef byproduct that is routinely used to make pet food? It’s so far down on the chain of what we consider acceptable in this country to eat.”