It was recently reported that the USDA plans to allow its vendors to add 7 million pounds of “pink slime - a mix of fatty beef by-products and connective tissue, ground up and soaked in ammonium hydroxide” to hamburger for use in the school lunch program. Now, parents all over the country are wondering, “is this stuff in my child’s school lunch?”

Because USDA regulations do not require the presence of “pink slime” to be listed among the ingredients, there is no easy way to detect it in hamburger, and it is estimated that as much as 70% of all ground beef sold in the US contains what is officially called “lean beef trimming.” As a result, school districts all around the country have been issuing statements to the media to assure parents that there is no “pink slime” hidden in their child's school lunch.

Not in San Francisco, though, where despite the fact that the SFUSD’s Office of Public Engagement received a written statement from the district’s meal provider, Preferred Meal Systems Inc., indicating that there is no pink slime in their meals, that statement still has not been shared with parents, or posted on the SFUSD website.

Some microbiologists don’t consider “pink slime” to be meat at all. Whether or not one considers it “meat,” the product which manufacturer Beef Products Inc. describes as “pH enhanced lean beef” gained USDA approval in 2001 and soon after began turning up on school lunch trays.

Back in the 1990s, the Holy Grail for meat companies was to find a way of “turning fatty slaughterhouse trimmings into usable lean beef,” according to the New York Times, which explains the history of the product:

[T]he industry had discovered that liquefying the fat and extracting the protein from the trimmings in a centrifuge resulted in a lean product that was desirable to hamburger-makers.

The greater challenge was eliminating E. coli and salmonella, which are more prevalent in fatty trimmings than in higher grades of beef. According to a 2003 study financed by Beef Products, the trimmings “typically includes most of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass” and contains “larger microbiological populations.” Beef Products said it also used trimmings from inside cuts of meat....[BPI] eventually settled on ammonia, which had been shown to suppress spoilage. Meat is sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed — all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.

All of this arcane information might have stayed under most people's radar but for the fact that Bettina Elias Siegel, a food blogger and parent of two school age children in Houston, saw the article about the 7 million additional pounds of “pink slime” bound for school lunch trays and blogged about it on her site The Lunch Tray. She told me:

When people buy 'ground beef,' they think they're getting just that - ground round, ground chuck or ground sirloin. But this product is something else entirely -- it's made from slaughterhouse scraps that are so pathogenic they have to be treated with ammonia hydroxide to make them fit for human consumption, and it's only used in the first place because it makes for a cheap filler. So it upsets me that consumers who think they're getting 100% ground beef might actually be getting up to 15% “pink slime,” and that we're feeding this stuff to our school kids, who have no say in the matter.

McDonald's and other fast food chains have discontinued using pink slime, and many school districts around the country are apparently quite capable of meeting their food service budgets without resorting to its use, why does USDA continue to make it available to schools?

Almost as an afterthought, she decided to add a petition to her March 6th blog post, asking the USDA to get this stuff out of the school meal programs which it oversees. A few hours later, the petition had received over 600 signatures, and by the next morning, almost 1500. By March 9, the petition had garnered over 10,000 signatures, and on March 10, it exploded with more than 100,000 signatures. As of this writing, that number has grown to over 220,000.

Clearly, a lot of people are concerned about the presence of “pink slime” in school lunch programs. Among them are San Francisco parents, including Alvarado elementary school parent Heather World, who wrote on a local chat board: “Pink slime is a pure violation of social justice, since many low-income children rely completely on school lunch. Children/parents can at least be educated about the harmful effects of junk food. Pink slime is basically forced down their throats.”

Daniel Webster elementary school parent Stacey Bartlett told me: “It sounds just awful, like something that should have been banished shortly after The Jungle was published. Short of turning my 500 sq ft back yard into a working farm, how can I be sure the food my children eat is free from these manufacturer's/processors conveniences?”

Maria Webster, a parent at John Yehall Chin elementary school summed it up when she said: “I think it’s disgusting and should not be considered food.”

So why hasn’t SFUSD made parents aware that this stuff, which no one seems to want their kids to eat, is not in fact on the menu, or in the cafeterias, of SFUSD schools? Chicago Public Schools, which use the SFUSD vendor Preferred Meal Systems for their elementary schools, has already issued a public statement that their meat is “pink slime” free, based on the information they received from Preferred and their other vendors. There is nothing to be gained from secrecy around an issue like this; in the absence of facts, parents will always imagine the worst.

When SFUSD’s website won an award not long ago, Gentle Blythe, Executive Director of Public Outreach and Communications, said “One of our goals for the website is to be transparent and to make relevant information easily accessible to parents and community members.” Surely parents would appreciate having some of that relevant information about “pink slime” made easily accessible.

I asked Maria Webster, the parent at John Yehall Chin, how she felt not knowing if “pink slime” was being served in her kids’ cafeteria. Her response: “It makes my skin crawl to think that my children could be eating this stuff at school. I will be less likely to buy them school lunch until I know for sure that they will not be fed pink slime.”

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.