It is an ingredient used to clean your stove, bathroom and patio.
Now, in a controversial purchase by the United States Department of Agriculture, ammonium hydroxide has found its way into the meals of thousands of children in the School District of Philadelphia who are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.
The USDA has recently acknowledged the purchase of 7 million pounds of “Pink Slime” — the stomach-churning moniker given to the low-quality scraps of beef that have been treated with ammonium hydroxide — and sold to other beef processors and fast-food and frozen-food suppliers.
This purchase appears to run counter to the USDA’s own mandate in February 2010. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said in statement at that time that “nothing is more important that the health and well-being of our children. We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are being served safe, high-quality foods at school.”
The USDA also confirmed that the bulk of ammonized beef will head straight toward school lunch rooms. Much of the meat — Lean, Finely Textured Beef, or LFTB — is produced by Texas-based Beef Products, Incorporated. The additive — along with the use of meats rumored to be of a standard below that of human consumption, has put both the USDA and BPI on the offensive.
“All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety,” said USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee. “USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years, and only allow products into commerce that we have confidence are safe.”
Indeed, both the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA labeled the use of ammonium hydroxide as a safe agent that doesn’t even require labeling. In fact, the FDA identified ammonium hydroxide as “Generally Regarded As Safe” in 1974; that report found that “that there is no evidence in the available information on ammonium hydroxide … that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future.”
Meat processors use ammonium hydroxide to sterilized the meat and kill off E. Coli, salmonella and other pathogens.
Philadelphia School District officials also acknowledge the purchase - and the district’s enrollment in NSLP, but said this is a long-standing arrangement and there’s no need for parents or the community to fret; the district has been enrolled in the NSLP since the early ‘90s.
“We get beef patties, and those beef patties are only used in our full-service locations, which is our high schools,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “We are aware that these patties contain 15 percent of the lean, finely textured beef; we are very confident that the USDA is following the highest food safety standards, and we are confident in the product.”
The USDA purchased more than one hundred million total pounds of beef to supply the NSLP; BPI’s processed meats make up seven million of that – or 6.5 percent, according to USDA data; the data also showed that no finished beef product will be served with more than 15 percent of BPI’s processed meat. According to the USDA, the agency only supplies about 20 percent of the food consumed by schoolchildren nationwide, and that the individual districts supply the other 80 percent.
Still, even at the margin, that’s a lot of ammonized beef making it way to lunchrooms across the country.
BPI’s image has taken a hit to it image with the latest round of news; this coming on the heels of fast-food giants McDonalds and Taco Bell stating they would no longer use the processed meat. A number of online petitions have sprouted up, including a very popular ant-red slime initiative at The Lunch Tray.com, which has more than 100,000 signers.
Still, BPI’s process and the so-called “Pink Slime” have its defenders.
Former Secretary of Agriculture John Block declared that BPI’s product was made from the same high quality, USDA-inspected trimmings as other ground beef, Chuck Jolley, the president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, went a step further.
“BPI produces a product from trim that is usually lost. Its primary uses are for hamburger patties, taco meat, chili and sausages,” Jolley said through a statement. “It has two primary benefits: it’s a very low-cost ingredient and it is as close to an absolutely safe product as humanely possible to produce.”