Amidst a national outcry over U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to purchase ammonia-treated ground beef for national school lunch programs, Fairfax County Public Schools has plans of its own to kiss the substance — dubbed "pink slime" — goodbye.
While FCPS does not receive beef products from the USDA, schools spokesman John Torre said the beef patties sold to county schools by another vendor do contain Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), the "waste" meat and fat that is often ground and turned into processed meat products or combined with higher quality meat to make low-fat ground beef.
Because beef trim is often filled with E. Coli and salmonella, it's treated with ammonium hydroxide, creating "pink slime," a term coined by some scientists who claim the resulting product "isn't really beef."
Torre said the school district plans to finish off its current inventory of the patties — the only product with LFTB served by FCPS — and then serve 100 percent beef hamburger patties, a switch that will likely take effect across the county in mid-April.
Penny E. McConnell, director of food and nutrition services, wrote in a letter to parents this week that manufacturers are not required to list LFTB on their product ingredient lists.
"Just like any parent buying food at a grocery store or a restaurant, schools rely on the federal government to inspect and certify the safety of the foods they purchase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), after consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, has determined that the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of LFTB is safe," McConnell wrote, which is why the schools have until now served the hamburger patties that include it.
The department contacted all providers of its beef products; Don Lee Farms, which sells the system its hamburger patties, was the only manufacturer who said it used the substance.
For the complete letter and table of beef products and suppliers, click on the media player above.
The hamburgers were a driving symbol used by Real Food For Kids, a grassroots group advocating for more whole, fresh foods in schools, to argue the county's food offerings need an overhaul: The hamburger patty currently served has 33 ingredients.
"Why not just beef?" they've asked for the past year.
The upcoming switch is a big step forward in food reform, Real Food For Kids member and Vienna parent JoAnne Hammermaster said.
"Ammonium hydroxide — I don't think there's one parent that you can find in Fairfax County that would agree to go ahead and keep that in the beef," Hammermaster said. "[The switch] is a very positive thing. We’re very excited."
In response to cries across the country against the product — including a petition that had nearly 250,000 signatures Thursday night — the USDA said this week it will offer schools two types of ground meat to serve students.
The change comes as the schools' Food Services department prepares to undergo an independent assessment and analysis.
As part of its proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, the school board voted in February to fund a $200,000 consultant study of ways to make FCPS school food healthier, led by an independent consultant.
The funds come from the Food and Nutrition Services budget, which is separate from FCPS' operating fund.
Torre could not confirm where the system is in that process, but Hammermaster, whose group gave early input into what the system should look for in a consultant, said she believes the system has nearly completed (or is preparing to send out) a request for proposal.
"Food Services is run very well right now. A lot of school districts struggle in their food services, so now the question is, how do we transition to selling more fresh, whole foods, and are there some ways we can start doing some of that here rather than bringing it in from elsewhere?" Hammermaster said.
Among the questions the group has had about the system: why the schools' department can't reduce the additives found in other products; why it can't replace alternatives to processed, packaged foods — like grilled cheese wrapped and heated in plastic — with things like real cheese sandwiched by two slices of fresh bread; and how it might take advantage of local farmers, who have offered their crops to area schools for food preparation.
Some of those farmers, including Chris and Sara Guerre of Maple Avenue Market, have given produce to Arlington County Public Schools for at least the past year.
"We need an assessment to tell us how to do that," Hammermaster said. "It's not an easy process and it takes a lot of time. That's why we think the assessment will help us plan and guide us one, three, five years down the road."
Schools aren't the only ones affected by the "pink slime." The Huffington Post reported the beef is mixed into 70 percent of the ground beef sold at grocers around the country; meat-packers and other stores aren't required to label it LFTB, however, because the USDA still recognizes it as meat.
Giant Food announced Thursday it was working to convert its fresh and frozen store brand beef products to those that do not contain LFTB, though LFTB is "safe and in compliance with all USDA standards for lean beef," said a spokeswoman for Giant's Landover, Md., office, which oversees the chain's supermarket locations in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.
She said the stores believe it will take a few weeks to sell the current inventory of fresh and frozen products. Stores will post signs in the meat departments letting customers know when their fresh ground beef is LFTB-free, she said.
Giant also offers Certified Angus Beef, Nature’s Promise, and Laura’s Lean beef products, all of which are free of the substance.