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Area schools remove pink slime from student lunches

Thursday - 3/29/2012, 7:25am  ET

Pinkslime512.jpg
The ingredient known as 'pink slime' is often used as filler in ground beef. (Courtesy of Metro.us)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - What's in a name?

To the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's "lean finely textured beef."

But to many people, it is "pink slime" -- a mush of beef trimmings treated with ammonia gas that can be used as an extender in ground meat.

USDA says it's safe for use in the school lunch program. An advisory panel that convened Wednesday to talk about the surplus ground beef provided to schools avoided all discussion of the controversy.

But many parents are concerned, and several big local school districts have responded by removing all beef products containing "pink slime" from the lunch programs.

In Montgomery County, a total ban will go into effect with the start of the new school year. Spokesman Dana Tofig says Montgomery County will opt out of the surplus ground beef program run by the federal government and drop private vendors who use the controversial meat extender.

Tofig told WTOP the school system is making the change because parents are concerned.

Parent Steve Katz, whose daughter attends Winston Churchill High in Potomac, is among those concerned.

"I think it raises questions as to the nutritional value and quality of the meat the children are being fed in the public schools," says Katz.

Those questions are being raised as well in Fairfax County, which also has served meals containing "lean finely textured beef."

Penny McConnell, the director of food service and nutrition for Fairfax County Public Schools, says Fairfax County does not use surplus beef supplied directly by USDA. But it has checked with all of its suppliers and found that one was adding lean finely textured beef to hamburger patties.

"We were not aware of that because that was not in our food specifications, but we will be adding to the food specifications that we do not want any product to contain it," she says.

McConnell says Fairfax's use in the past has been very limited and there will be none in the future. But she also warns that prices are likely to go up, since the extender cut the cost.

"It is going to cost us a minimum of seven more cents per patty," she says.

D.C., alone among major area school districts, had a published policy on its website long before the latest pink slime controversy began. It stated that the D.C. Public Schools would serve no ammonia-treated meat. However, when contacted by WTOP, D.C. school officials declined to comment.

Lean finely textured beef has never been listed on product labels, which is part of the problem for school districts. That also holds true for grocery stores, which have begun their own move to get the ingredient out of their ground beef.

A major manufacturer of lean finely textured beef announced Monday that it had halted production at three of its four plants. But Beef Products Inc. said the meat extender is safe to eat and accused activists of "bullying" retailers into dropping it.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)