In response to nationwide concern among parents and school service providers about ‘pink slime’ being purchased by the national school lunch program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that next year it will give school districts the ability to choose whether they will serve the ammoniated beef product.

The USDA said that while it believes all products it buys for the school lunch program, including Lean Finely Textured Beef, are “safe and nutritious” it would respond to customer demand to give schools additional options, so they can opt out of purchasing LFTB if they wish.

LFTB is essentially hamburger filler made from leftover trimmings once relegated to pet food and other byproducts. Because the trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company adds a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bacteria.

The announcement comes in the midst of an astounding level of public outcry over the ingredient, has been served in schools and used in the majority of American ground beef for years. 

Last spring, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver sparked interest in the topic after railing against the product on his ABC reality show. He called the “clever scientific process” shocking and a breach of consumer trust and referred to LFTB as “shit.”

Fast food giants McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King have all dropped LFTB from their ground beef this year.  

‘Pink slime’ caught fire again late last week when Bettina Siegel, a mom and blogger, petitioned USDA to remove the product from school lunches. In less than a week her petition at had nearly a quarter of a million signatures.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) both wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week asking that the product both be removed from lunches and also labeled for the general public.

“There is only one word for this product: gross,” said Pingree. “McDonald’s and Burger King won’t serve it in their restaurants and it doesn’t belong in school cafeterias either.”

Hagen weighs in

When asked whether she could understand parents’ concern about ‘pink slime,’ Dr. Hagen told Food Safety News that it was important to separate food safety from production concerns. 

“I think about the food safety aspect of it,” said Hagen, who has two young children, ages 4 and 7. “In talking about that, it’s important to distinguish people’s concerns about the idea of this sort of product and not having not having known before what’s going into their food or how it’s being processed – separating those things from the safety concerns, because that’s really not the issue here.

“We do feel that this is safe. It’s been used for a long time. Ammonium hydroxide itself is used in a multitude of different products,” added Hagen. “I think it’s the idea of this product that is troublesome to people. Just being honest, I don’t think your average consumer probably knows a lot about how food is produced. So yeah, I understand that they have questions. They didn’t know that this was going into their food. I think it would be more productive to be able to educate people about this. But our concern is the safety.”