Fine beef or pink slime? Experts weigh in on national debate

A major change is in the works for the 2012-2013 school year that most students will probably not notice.

Following a nationwide media blitz earlier this year over lean, finely-textured beef – or “pink slime,” as it was dubbed – the United States Department of Agriculture will begin labeling the ground beef products it provides to schools so America’s school’s food service directors can make the decision as to whether they will include LFTB or not.

Valley City Public Schools food service director Sue Milender, who is also has four children enrolled in the district, has the full support of the Valley City School Board in her decisions, and she said she will choose not to include LFTB meat, not because of health concerns, but to appease parents who might have been swept up with the uproar.

“We’ll go without, not because I’m concerned about it being in, but because of the media perception out there,” Milender said.

LFTB is produced by trimming fatty areas of meat off the carcass, and treating them with low heat at about 100 degrees to melt or loosen the fat away from the meat. It is then spun through a centrifuge to separate the meat and the fat. While a major portion of that resulting meat is usually treated with citric acid, sometimes producers use ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria that might have accumulated in the meat. Ammonium hydroxide is a common ingredient in many household cleaners.

“Ammonium hydroxide is just ammonia and water,” said Valley City State University science instructor and two-time Teacher of the Year Hilde Van Gijssel. “It has a very high PH and that’s why it’s deadly for most organisms. You don’t want to drink it; it’s very corrosive.”

Van Gijssel said the damage caused by drinking straight ammonium hydroxide is dependent on the concentration of the ammonia in the water solution. In the LFTB production process, a small, diluted amount is spritzed on the meat, and the meat itself is diluted as it is ground up with untreated cuts of meat for ground beef products.

“Actually, your body produces a lot of ammonia. In the breakdown of proteins, that gets changed into urea and that’s how that gets excreted,” she said.

The USDA reports that 75 percent of the ground beef patties sold commercially contain up to 25 percent LFTB, while USDA distributed beef contains about 6.5 percent.

Ammonium hydroxide has been used for decades to treat many food products, including pastries, cheeses, chocolates, condiments, relishes, snack foods, jams, jellies and beverages. It’s use in beef is to effectively kill E. Coli bacteria, which poses a severe health risk to all consumers.

The production of LFTB has also been a profitable boon to the cattle ranching industry. North Dakota State University Extension Service Agent Randy Grueneich said the country is now able to produce more beef from fewer cows now than it could decades ago by using more meat from larger, better bred cattle.

“It’s been around a long time, a lot of years. It’s a way of using that extra product so it’s really not new, but the awareness of it is relatively new,” Gruenich said.

Milender said the school offers other meal choices that do not include any ground beef, and the first priority of Valley City Public Schools Food Services is to promote the health and well being of children in the district, to a point of being “almost obsessive.”

“I have four kids of my own in this district,” she said. “If I have any concerns whatsoever about any of the products – personally a a parent I would look into it – but not only that, for all of the children.”