Pink slime and the SFUSD

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Let's start off with a basic assumption: This stuff is gross. If you eat hamburgers, you don't want to know what goes in them anyway, since it's never been pretty, but the idea of taking stuff so likely to be infected with e. coli that you have to run it through a centrifuge and the expose it to ammonia gas -- and then call it "food" -- is pretty icky even to me, and I eat sausage.

And like a lot of things in our world-class corporate agribusiness food system, nobody knew much about it until ABC News revealed that it's in most of the ground beef sold in America.

Which leads to the obvious question that Dana Woldow asked in BeyondChron today: Are San Francisco school kids eating pink slime?

It's actually not too hard to find out. The San Francisco Unified School District has a press office, and the folks there answer the phone, and it took me exactly four minutes to get ahold of Heidi Anderson, who told me that the district had contacted the Illinois-based food service it uses, and has been assured that pink slime is not on the mix or in the menu.

She sent me a March 9, 2012 memo from James Gunner, director of quality assurance at Preferred Meal Systems, which said:

Please be assured that Preferred Meal Systems does NOT use any lean fine textured beef in any of the burger or meat crumble products we produce. All of the beef we use comes from ‘block beef’, which are whole muscle meat trimmings. These trimmings are not pre-ground in any way similar to the lean fine textured beef. Preferred Meal Systems actually grinds its own beef from this block to produce its hamburger patties, Salisbury steak and crumbles which are then used in our customer’s meals.

How appetizing.

I have no reason to believe that's untrue, although I bet if we really wanted to check, the chemistry students at one of the high schools could run a test for ammonia traces in the school hamburgers.

I get Woldow's complaint -- the district could have put this up on its website, could have issued a press release, could have made more of an effort to get out ahead of this story. On the other hand, what passes for the education coverage in the mainstream media could have been better (and I'm to blame too -- I could have called SFUSD the minute the first word about this nastiness hit the news). In the old days, when the Chron and Ex had hundreds of staffers and TV news had big investigative teams and there were people scouring the city for stories, I suspect someone one would have asked this question a week ago, when the ABC news story broke.

That's part of the tragedy of the decline of newspapers (I know, I know, the dailies weren't much good even the glory days, and it's their own damn fault that they didn't keep up with technology, I get it, heard it, been there, done that, threw away the T-Shirt) -- we still count on reporters to do the work of monitoring local government, and until we all figure out a new way to make enough money to pay the staff, it's getting harder and harder to do. As Anderson told me: "We just haven't gotten an official query from the press on this."

Amazing. A week after a blockbuster story (and again, if ABC news didn't pay investigative reporters, none of us would have known anything about this) and nobody in the local news media thought to pick up the phone and call the SFUSD press office.

My usual parental concern didn't kick in on this one, in part because my elementary-school daughter alwasy brings her own lunch and my middle-school son, who loves animals, wants to be a vet and never ate much meat, has recently announced that he's a vegan. That's quite a challenge at the local school district -- there's not a whole lot of vegan fare in the cafeteria. Most of the protein in the veggie lunches comes from milk and cheese, which is understandable, I guess, since there's probably not enough demand for vegan food to justifiy a special set of entrees. But, you know, beans and rice. And vanilla soy milk.

The bigger problem here is that SFUSD gets so little money for its lunches that there aren't many options -- and the district doesn't have a central kitchen to cook better food locally. When Margaret Brodkin ran for school board, that was one of her issues, and I agree with it: In this food-obsessed (and rich) city, we ought to be able to figure out a way to get decent locally-produced food to the kids.

That, and the fact that the PR staff at public agencies need to start thinking like reporters, and getting news like this out to the public, because too often the reporters aren't doing it for them anymore.