WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) today called the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) decision to allow school districts to opt-out of purchasing ammonia-treated ground beef -- dubbed 'pink slime' -- "a good first step," but added that "more needs to be done." The decision comes after Senator Menendez wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the USDA to re-consider its plan to purchase 7 million pounds of pink slime for use in the nation's federally funded school lunch program. Menendez also called for a thorough review of its nutritional value and safety, as well as mandatory labeling on packaging in supermarkets.
"All it takes is a look at a picture of pink slime to understand parents' concerns that this product doesn't belong in our school lunchrooms -- especially as we are encouraging kids to eat more fruits and vegetables," said Menendez. "Consumers have a right to know what's in their food, and children, who have no choice what's on their school menu, shouldn't be forced to eat meat of questionable nutrition and safety. Giving schools a choice is a good first step."
Menendez wrote USDA after hearing from New Jerseyeans who had seen recent press reports about the USDA purchase of the beef filler for federally funded school lunch programs. Menendez also took notice of a petition started by Bettina Siegel, a mother in Texas, who runs a blog called "The Lunch Tray." In ten days, more than 200,000 people signed her petition calling for USDA to change its policy.
Bettina Siegel said: "I'm so pleased that my voice and the voices of more than 200,000 concerned Americans were heard all the way in Washington by Senator Menendez who joined the fight and pushed the USDA to change its policy. This is an important initial victory for parents, students and consumers and shows that working together can produce meaningful change. I look forward to working with Senator Menendez and the USDA to ensure all consumers have the information they need to make informed, safe choices for themselves and their children."
Menendez wants USDA to follow today's decision with mandatory labeling guidelines for ground beef sold in supermarkets. ABC News recently reported that whereas more than 70% of ground beef sold in supermarkets contains pink slime, it is not required to be listed on the ingredient label.
"Today's decision was the right call but more needs to be done," Menendez added. "I look forward to working with the USDA and concerned parents to ensure that not only our kids have nutritious food in the school lunch room, but that consumers have the information they need to make informed decisions about what they put on the kitchen table."
In the letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday, Menendez explained his concerns over the safety of the product: "The leftover scraps are treated with ammonia because they come from parts of the cow with high exposure to fecal matter. Despite the addition of ammonia, there have been dozens of cases of pathogens infecting the treated mixture. These troubling reports cast doubt on the USDA's assertion that this process is perfectly safe. In addition, there is little question that American consumers are being misled when they purchase what they believe is 100 percent ground beef. That's because the filler contains mostly connective tissue and other non-muscle products which are less nutritious than pure beef."
A full text of the letter is below:
March 14, 2012
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I am writing to express my concern that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has purchased 7 million pounds of ground beef containing non-muscle filler treated with ammonia for the school lunch program. There is significant debate regarding both the safety and nutritional value of meat that contains this so-called "pink slime" and I urge you to thoroughly review USDA's process for approving this mixture. In addition, I urge you to require the labeling of such products and to cease USDA transfers of pink slim-containing products to public schools.
In the past two decades, beef processors have started adding low-quality scraps to their ground beef products to maximize profits. Since these low-grade trimmings come from the parts of the cow most susceptible to contamination, they must be treated with ammonia to reduce the chance of food-borne pathogens. This process raises a number of concerns.
The largest concern is clearly the safety of the product itself. The leftover scraps are treated with ammonia because they come from parts of the cow with high exposure to fecal matter. Despite the addition of ammonia, there have been dozens of cases of pathogens infecting the treated mixture. These troubling reports cast doubt on the USDA's assertion that this process is perfectly safe. In addition, there is little question that American consumers are being misled when they purchase what they believe is 100 percent ground beef. That's because the filler contains mostly connective tissue and other non-muscle products which are less nutritious than pure beef.
Taken together, these issues warrant a thorough review of the entire inspection and transparency procedures currently in place. I urge the USDA to reevaluate the inclusion of non-muscle filler to ground beef to determine if this process increases the risk of food-borne pathogens.
I also urge the USDA to require the labeling of products that contain this filler so consumers are armed with the information they need to make informed decisions. Finally, I call on the USDA to end the purchase of these products for our public schools. Students enrolled in the school lunch program have little to no choice over what they eat and should not be forced to consume questionable meat.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of these issues. My office will continue working with your staff to ensure these issues are addressed.
United States Senator
September 16, 2021