Following news reports that today the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will announce changes to its policies in response to concern over USDA purchase of low-grade beef filling for use in school meals, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) called for more information on food labels for all consumers. Reports indicate that the USDA will announce today that schools will be able to choose between purchasing ground beef with non-muscle fillers or ground beef without fillers for school meals. In a letter to USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack, Brown applauded the USDA's planned announcement, but asked the USDA to detail the food safety procedures currently in place for this product and to provide both schools and consumers with more information so they can make informed decisions about what to purchase and serve their families.
"Today's announcement regarding the use of low-quality fillers in ground beef served in school meals is a good move for schools and our children," Brown said. "But too many consumers remain in the dark about the food they buy. That's why I've asked Sec. Vilsack to modify USDA's current rules and to provide U.S. consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions. Ohioans deserve to know whether their ground beef contains non-muscle fillers."
Lean, finely-textured beef, which some are calling "pink slime" is composed of mechanically-separated, beef trimmings that are treated with ammonium hydroxide to eliminate possible pathogens. This product, like all meat products entering the marketplace must meet USDA food safety standards, however given questions about the product's safety in the media, Brown also requested details of the USDA's current inspection procedures.
Brown has been a champion for product labeling, healthy school meals, and food safety. Brown fought to pass Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) standards as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. In Dec. 2011, Brown urged the Obama Administration to appeal a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that would prevent the U.S. from continuing its Country of Origin Labeling program. Through his work on the Agriculture Committee, Brown successfully fought to update and improve the quality of meals through the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which was signed into law in Dec. 2010. Additionally, two of Brown's provisions were included in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, passed in November 2010. The final bill included important provisions to establish a nationwide traceability system through the FDA that would establish a product tracing system and develop additional recordkeeping requirements for foods determined to be "high risk." The final bill also includes a provision to provide FDA with the authority to order food recalls when a firm fails to voluntarily recall dangerous food products -- a provision Brown has long fought for. By providing FDA with mandatory recall authority, the bill addresses the existing inability of the federal government to recall tainted food.
Full text of the letter is below.
March 15, 2012
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I applaud your reported actions to address the influx of lean, finely-textured beef--or what is being called "pink slime"--in schools. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchases approximately one-fifth of the food served in schools, your decision to offer schools the choice to purchase beef with or without low-quality fillers is significant. Through its commodity procurement and distribution systems, the USDA has a significant ability to influence market dynamics generally and what products are available in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, specifically. Parents trust that their children's school lunches are safe and nutritious, and such information can help them obtain the information they require.
In light of concerns that have been raised about this product, I urge you to continue to look at the USDA's procurement practices and consider options that will enable school districts and consumers to make choices based on full information and preference.
I have been particularly troubled by several aspects detailed in reports regarding non-muscle fillers: a lack of identifying information that enables consumers to make informed decisions about these low-grade trimmings; conflicting information from the USDA and the media about the safety of this product; and the routine use of this product in school meals.
In order to ensure wise consumer decision-making, labeling and full disclosure are essential. Absent this information, consumers cannot make informed decisions about what they and their families eat. Provided it is safe, American consumers may choose to purchase ground beef mixed with non-muscle filler. But they should also have the information needed to choose a product that does not include any low-cost additives. Consumers cannot make this decision if they do not know what they are purchasing. Therefore, I urge you to modify USDA's labeling rules so consumers know whether or not they are purchasing a product that contains non-muscle fillers.
To make sure low-grade trimmings are safe, they are treated with ammonia to kill possible pathogens. And, while all meat products entering the marketplace must meet USDA food safety standards, some reports have questioned the safety of this product. Please detail the food safety standards this product must meet prior to entering the marketplace and if they differ from the standards applied to other meat products.
I urge you to act quickly, as this issue is at the forefront of many concerned consumers' minds. I look forward to your response.