The USDA — which did not directly address Siegel's petition — buys about a fifth of the food served in schools nationwide. The agency this year is contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program. About 7 million pounds of that is from Beef Products Inc., though the pink product in question never accounts for more than 15 percent of a single serving of ground beef.
Under the change to be announced Thursday, schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with the product or less lean bulk ground beef without it. The new policy won't affect ground beef at schools until this fall because of existing contracts, according to a USDA official with knowledge of the decision.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement was not made yet, said that the agency believes the ammonia treatment is safe, but that it wanted to be transparent and that school districts wanted choices.
"School districts have made requests and school districts want, basically, choice," the official said. "And we respect that, they're our customers."
Beef Product Inc. stresses that its product is 100 percent lean beef and is approved by a series of industry experts. The company's new website, pinkslimeisamyth.com, rebuts some common criticisms of the product ("Myth 4: Boneless lean beef trimmings are produced from inedible meat").
The National Meat Association also has joined the fight, disputing claims that the product is made from "scraps destined for pet food" and other claims. The industry group also said that ammonium hydroxide is used in baked goods, puddings and other processed foods.
Association CEO Barry Carpenter, who has visited BPI plants and watched the process, said critics don't seem to have the facts.
"It's one of those things. It's the aesthetics of it that just gets people's attention," Carpenter said. "And in this case, it's not even legitimate aesthetics of it. It's a perception of what it is."
Proponents of the process stress that it is both federally regulated and safe. Though Nestle said the focus on safety misses the larger point.
"I'm not arguing that that stuff is unsafe," she said, "I'm arguing that it's the lowest common denominator."
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