Amid a growing social media storm over so-called "lean finely textured beef," the Agriculture Department announced Thursday that, starting next fall, schools involved in the national school lunch program will have the option of avoiding the product.
Under the change, schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with the product or less lean bulk ground beef without it. The change won't kick in immediately because of existing contracts, according to a USDA official with knowledge of the decision.
Though the term "pink slime" 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. The petition quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The low-cost ingredient is 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.
The department said it continues to affirm the safety of the ammonia-treated lean finely textured beef as a filler, but that it wanted to be transparent and that school districts wanted choices.
The USDA buys about a fifth of the food served in schools nationwide.
But the opt-out provision doesn't go far enough for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to immediately ban the product from school lunches.
"The beef industry sent my office an email the other day describing pink slime as `wholesome and nutritious' and said the process for manufacturing it is `similar to separating milk from cream.' I don't think a highly processed slurry of meat scraps mixed with ammonia is what most families would think of as `wholesome and nutritious,'" Pingree said in a written statement.
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 official estimates it is in at least half of the ground meat and burgers in the United States.
The product 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 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?"