Kansas City area stores, schools say no to ‘pink slime’

In the week since “pink slime” suddenly became part of the national vocabulary, some nationwide grocers and restaurants have scrambled away from using the hamburger additive.

Now several area school districts and grocers are rejecting it, too.

“It is totally the yuck factor,” said Christine Splichal, a spokeswoman for the Spring Hill School District, which has decided to stop using meat containing pink slime.

Although the additive meets USDA standards, “we will not purchase ANY ground beef products” that contain it, Peter J. Ciacco, president of Price Chopper grocery stores, said in a statement Friday.

Blogs and tweets exploded recently after the USDA said it would allow schools to choose whether to serve hamburger containing pink slime, as the additive had come to be known. Officially it’s called “lean finely textured beef.”

The additive comes from muscle tissue that has been shaved off the bones of beef cattle, and after heating to melt away the fat, it’s sprayed with a mist of ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.

It has been used as an ingredient in about 70 percent or more of hamburger meat in the United States until recently, and before this month, schools that bought hamburger from the USDA had not been given a choice of rejecting it.

Already several fast food restaurants have moved away from using it, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell.

This week, some of the country’s major grocery chains announced they no longer would sell pink slime in hamburger, including Kroger, parent company of Dillons supermarkets, and Safeway. Target followed, and Costco said it never has used the beef ingredient.

In the Kansas City area, many school nutritionists were hurrying to talk to their vendors to learn if the hamburger they were using had pink slime.

“I can assure you we will not be using that product,” said Splichal of the Spring Hill district.

She said she understood there were benefits of using the lean finely textured meat but “cognitively I can’t wrap my brain around it.”

Independence School District officials agreed.

While the district was pleased the USDA was giving school districts the ability to choose, the district won’t be buying any more pink slime.

“Our answer will be a resounding no,” the district’s statement said. “Though the USDA will continue to offer the product and deems it safe, the Independence School District will be choosing an alternative.”

Other area schools and groceries were investigating to determine whether they were offering it.

At least one district, Kansas City Public Schools, said it will continue to accept meat products that have been approved as safe from the USDA.

“The district offers two entrées daily at every school, so students have the option to choose the second entrée each day if they do not want to accept the ground beef item on the menu,” the statement said. “We have faith and confidence in the products received from USDA to be safe.”

Indeed, supporters of the product have sought to quell the upheaval, stressing the safety of the meat.

Eric Mittenthal, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, said many myths exist about the product that are just not true, including that it was once used for dog food.

“There are tons of misunderstanding about this product,” he said.

The Kansas Beef Council sent letters to area schools this week saying the lean finely textured beef offers affordable nutrition for kids in light of schools’ shrinking budgets.

“Lean finely textured beef is simply a low-fat source of beef protein, that when added to ground beef, is just another ingredient in the beef dishes you know and love,” wrote Audrey Monroe, the council’s nutrition director.

A USDA spokesman said hamburger containing the additive has less fat than 90-percent lean ground beef.

For districts that are still concerned, USDA has promised for food orders this fall to provide details about whether the hamburger it sells contains the ingredient.

Schools that don’t buy their meats from USDA must direct questions to their food vendors to get details of specific products and their ingredients, a USDA spokesman said.

An Olathe School District official said its vendors had provided letters stating that their hamburger did not contain pink slime.

Other school districts contacted by The Star:

• Blue Valley School District officials said their vendors assured them the ground beef currently does not contain pink slime.

Shawnee Mission School District lunches currently do not have the beef ingredient and will not, officials said.

• A Kansas City, Kan., School District spokeswoman said the district nutritionist will look into the issue.

• Lee’s Summit School District issued a press release to parents explaining that they had letters from vendors that said lean finely textured beef was not an ingredient in their ground beef.

As for local grocers, Price Chopper is in the process of eliminating all pink slime from its hamburger.

“Due to recent news stories that have diminished consumer confidence in ground beef products” containing it, Ciacco said, “we are contacting all of our beef suppliers and instructing them to discontinue shipping any ground beef that might include this fillerwe feel this is the right thing to do for our customers.”

Hy-Vee grocers said they were monitoring the situation but did not have plans to stop using it. Hamburger freshly ground at individual stores does not include it. But hamburger that comes in prepackaged rolls and patties often does, said Ruth Comer, a Hy-Vee spokeswoman. If customers want to know whether the beef they are purchasing contains the product, they can ask store employees.

“We are telling customers who want to know and we are being honest,” she said.