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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A word to the squeamish, this next story is pretty disgusting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced, yesterday, that it would give schools the choice to order ground beef that does not contain what known as pink slime, also known as lean beef trimmings.

The USDA took action after 200,000 mothers, fathers, and concerned citizens signed a petition to get pink slime out of school cafeterias. They cited safety concerns. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, these controversial beef trimmings aren't just found in the burgers and tacos served at school, they may well be in the ground beef we buy in the grocery store.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: In an attempt to find out whether some ground beef that I bought contains so-called pink slime, I called Don Schaffner for help. He's a food scientist at Rutgers and I reached out to him at his lab.

DON SCHAFFNER: Yeah, I can hear you, you're faint but I can hear you.

AUBREY: OK. All right. So I've got this package of meat here, and I'm looking at the label. Am I going to know by reading this label if there are any of these lean beef trimmings in here?

SCHAFFNER: You won't know that by looking at the label.

AUBREY: Oh, so it's not labeled at all?

SCHAFFNER: It's not required to be labeled at this point in time, yeah.

AUBREY: Now according to estimates, about 70 percent of ground beef in the U.S. contains pink slime trimmings. And clearly, people are completely grossed out, disgusted by the phrase. It suggests an oozy, gooey, liquid. The meat industry calls it Lean Finely Textured Beef. So I asked Don Schaffner what exactly is this stuff?

He explained these bits come from fatty trimmings that also contain small amounts of muscle protein and connective tissue.

SCHAFFNER: What the process does is it takes that, those mostly fat trimmings, and heats them up so the fat becomes liquid, and then uses a process to separate the lean portion from the fat portion.

AUBREY: So this makes sense. You take something fatty, extract the lean part, and maybe it does look a little pink and slimy, but so does a lot of raw meat. So here's what some people say they're worried about. There are reports that the trimmings are likely to carry pathogens such as e.coli. And Schaffner, who consults for the meat industry, says this is true.

SCHAFFNER: The bacterial risk comes from the fact that these are pieces that are being cut away from the outside of the meat, and so that's where the bacteria are likely to be. So there is a possibility of an increased risk of having pathogens or even just, you know, many different types of bacteria, not just pathogentic type, on these products.

AUBREY: The industry agrees. That's why it's adopted the practice of treating the meat trimmings with ammonium hydroxide gas. This kills the pathogens, but even if it solves one problem, critics say who wants to eat beef treated with ammonia? Betsy Boareen of the American Meat Institute Foundation maintains that it's safe in the amounts that are used.

BETSY BOAREEN: This is not the same ammonia that you might use in cleaning supplies. This is a - it's a gas, it's a different compound. So this isn't, you know, cleaning supply that's putting in, it's actually a well established processing intervention that has a long history of success.

AUBREY: And is approved by the USDA. But consumer sentiment has been turning against pink slime, or lean beef trimmings, for a while now. The Fast food industry has responded. And McDonalds announced, back in January of 2011, it would no longer use ammonia-treated beef in its burgers.

But given that only-an estimated 30 percent of the ground beef supply is free of these trimmings, it may now be a challenge for schools to actually find certified ammonia-free beef. According to chef Ann Cooper, of the Boulder, Colorado school district, she's trying to buy some now, and her suppliers can't seem to get their hands on any.

ANN COOPER: They can't find any. Today, my processor in Denver can't find it for us.

AUBREY: Cooper says it's unclear what will happen if lots of schools and consumers start to demand hamburger meat that's free of lean finely textured beef.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can read more about pink slime and other more appetizing stories on NPR's food blog, The Salt. And another factor affecting food safety is the globalization of the U.S. food supply.

A report by the Center for Disease Control says food borne disease outbreaks caused by imported food are on the rise, in part, due to the doubling of food imports over the past decade. Imported food was linked to 39 outbreaks and more than 2,000 illnesses during this period, with nearly half the outbreaks since 2009. The biggest culprit: imported fish and spice. The outbreaks were linked to 15 different countries, nearly half of those in Asia.

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