Schools feel misled about 'pink slime'

News-Sun investigation prompts more scrutiny about beef schools buy.

For weeks, local school districts told the public they don’t serve food containing the controversial beef product known as “pink slime.”

Turns out they probably do.

A Springfield News-Sun investigation revealed that districts and food vendors may have been inadvertently misleading the public. Three key beef suppliers to schools acknowledge using what detractors call pink slime in some of their products.

After asking more questions of the suppliers, a few school districts have changed their menus.

“They were telling the truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is how I feel,” said Chris Ashley, director of Springfield City Schools’ meals program.

The substance, which the industry calls “lean, finely textured beef,” isn’t harmful, according to food scholars and government regulators. But several fast- food and grocery chains recently have said they’ll stop carrying the product because of negative public reaction.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently allowed schools to choose whether they will serve beef with the ingredient. Schools in southwest Ohio have expressed interest in opting out — but to do that they have to know what they’re getting in the first place.

Most school food managers in southwest Ohio received letters from suppliers last month about the beef product.

From those, they thought the product wasn’t used. But the letters addressed pinpoint concerns — not the whole picture.

After what seemed to be assurances from food distributors, schools thought they were not using the processed substance, said staff from more than 20 districts in the Springfield and Dayton areas contacted by the News-Sun.

But nearly all districts bought meat from companies like AdvancePierre and J.T.M. that, when asked directly, said they use the substance in some products.

Districts likely buy beef with LFTB. Adding the ingredient lowers the cost of ground beef. With budgets hovering around $2 a meal, districts can’t afford to buy a higher-quality product than their communities accept. LFTB’s acceptance nationally is waning.

Letters confusing

Some of those letters from suppliers to schools said the liquid-like beef product was not sourced from a particular company. If schools didn’t know that more than one company made the stuff, they assumed no LFTB was used.

Other suppliers said no ammonia-treated LFTB was used. They didn’t mention that suppliers buy LFTB that is not treated with ammonia.

Upon learning the companies do use pink slime, several school food managers said they will change their buying habits. This time of year, school districts decide what products to buy for the next school season.

Three beef suppliers primarily serve the area’s schools: AdvancePierre, J.T.M. and Tyson. Tyson’s letters were the most forthcoming. Its very first statement March 12 says that some of its products contain the ingredient, and another statement that day lists 30 of its products that definitely do not contain it.

The other two companies’ statements were less forthcoming. Eventually, in conversations and emails, AdvancePierre and J.T.M. told the News-Sun they sometimes use the product.

At least in Clark County’s school districts and large ones around Dayton, no company managed to avoid losing schools’ accounts when the outcry against the substance picked up mid-March.

J.T.M.’s director of school sales, Brian Hofmeier, said compiling a list of products that contain it and which do not would be prohibitively time-consuming.

“If you called Kroger and asked them about LFTB, they’d probably ask ‘which product?’ I stock 15,000 products,” he said.

As of late-March, Kroger hasn’t put the substance into its ground beef. But experts have said up to 70 percent of all ground beef produced over the past 10 years had contained it.

AdvancePierre did not respond to several requests for comment on the matter.

Social acceptance, not safety, debated

The product is both safe and retains vital nutrients, according to the beef industry and prominent food scholars such as Marion Nestle. But, Nestle reports, society has shunned the product as something it doesn’t want to eat, based on both the mechanical processes involved and that it might contain parts of the animal someone wouldn’t normally choose to eat.

“I know that the industry must use all parts of the animal in order to be efficient as well as responsible,” said Ashley, the Springfield school food official. “But I’m not sure the general public wants to eat all parts. I think there’s other ways to utilize those products.”

Still others object to the fact that some finely textured beef is treated with ammonia gas. The USDA says it’s safe, but because school districts usually buy beef that’s cooked at the processing plant, that beef (even finely-textured beef) isn’t often treated with ammonia.

Joe Maas, co-owner of J.T.M., supports the product.

“It’s beef. Period. End of story. It’s not an additive, it’s not a filler. It’s not an ingredient,” he said. “Thank God that through the centuries of mankind, we’ve had these really entrepreneurial guys (who invented methods of food processing). If not for that, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to feed everyone on the planet.”

He said: “I can describe anything you eat in a less-than-desirable way (so that) you probably wouldn’t eat it.”

That’s what he contends happened with so-called “pink slime.” It raises the question whether “micro-ground beef” or a friendlier term would have sparked the same publicity firestorm.

“I think it’s more psychological than anything,” said Candi Wyatt, whose son, Elijah Wallace, is a sixth-grader at Simon Kenton Elementary in Springfield. “If we’ve been eating it for 10 years, why is it a big deal now?”

Wyatt’s son likes the school’s “walking tacos,” which feature ground beef in a bag of corn chips. But would he stop eating his favorite foods?

“Probably some things. But not pizza. Or hot sauce,” he said. “I don’t care how those are made, I’ll still eat them.”

Elijah notes that sometimes foods are made in odd ways. “Our food is, like, from animals. ... Cheese sticks are so good, but isn’t it, like, rotten milk?”

While some families weren’t aware of the recent pink slime debate — and some families don’t care — the heads of school lunch programs don’t seem willing to bet confidence in their programs on it.

Local districts respond

Ashley said he’ll immediately stop using the one beef product he buys from AdvancePierre — a patty with barbecue sauce — until he learns whether it contains the ingredient. He can’t afford to have his students lose trust in the quality of his food, he said.

Springfield also prepares food for other districts: Catholic Central, Head Start and the Clark County Educational Service Center. Springfield doesn’t buy meat from J.T.M.

A representative from Greenon said that district would stop using products from those companies until they provided more information. Staff at Tecumseh, Southeastern and Clark-Shawnee said they would inquire about the products they buy and switch if LFTB is used.

Urbana City Schools would not say whether it would serve beef with LFTB. Sarah Finch, a food service manager, wrote in an email that “we are very proactive in serving healthy beef products to our students. Therefore, we plan to watch closely our purchases from Pierres.”

Joshua Ashley, who manages food service at Clark-Shawnee, said he’s told a lot of people that his school doesn’t serve products with the ingredient.

“You’re gonna have to reverse what you’ve told them,” he said. “(The letters were) kind of the only thing I had to go on.”

Ashley’s father is Chris Ashley, who oversees food service at Springfield City Schools.

“My take on it is that these companies automatically just said they don’t use it so they don’t have to deal with it,” Chris Ashley said. “Now, as you’ve just seen, they’re having to be more honest about it because it’s a bigger deal than it was initially.”

Managers like him said they worked to learn about LFTB as the media attention increased. But they say they need to rely on the government to tell them what’s safe and on companies to tell them exactly what they’re getting.

In other words, “we are not food scientists,” said Paula Montgomery, child nutrition supervisor for Fairborn City Schools.

Stephanie Zinger, student nutrition services supervisor for Centerville City Schools, said area food service supervisors will discuss more questions at a previously scheduled meeting Thursday of the Miami Valley food service employees organization.

“The USDA says this is an acceptable product, this is a healthy, safe product,” she said. “Is there a gross factor that makes me as a director uncomfortable? Probably, yes. Yes there is.”

Distributor fooled

Gordon Food Service distributes suppliers’ products — sometimes rebranded as GFS — to restaurants and school districts.

“GFS is able to provide our customers with accurate information about our (GFS) branded products, as we control the specs for those products,” said Deb Abraham, a GFS spokeswoman.

About products it doesn’t control, Abraham said “we assist (clients like school districts) in obtaining that information.”

In this case, GFS forwarded letters from suppliers to clients. Kenerly Hall, the GFS customer service representative who coordinates deliveries to schools in 14 counties in the Springfield and Dayton areas, said she received and passed along at least one letter from AdvancePierre.

She said she has not seen the March 28 letter that clearly says the company sometimes uses pink slime.

But like the food service managers, Hall hadn’t parsed the letters with a fine-toothed comb. When told the letters she forwarded didn’t explicitly discount LFTB, Hall agreed.

“I thought we were safe with the letters,” she said. “It sounded like we didn’t have any (LFTB).”

Staff writers Kyle Nagel and Kelli Wynn contributed to this report.

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