COEUR d'ALENE - When it comes to the now notorious and so-called "pink slime" found in ground beef, the federal government will offer school districts across the country a choice next fall.
Schools in the National School Lunch Program can choose ground beef with or without what the US. Department of Agriculture calls "Lean Finely Textured Beef."
Offended consumers are calling it "pink slime," which is a low-cost, high-fat ground beef filler treated with ammonium hydroxide gas. Recent reports by ABC News and others featuring the filler have ignited an Internet firestorm, burning hottest on social networking sites.
The USDA made the announcement Thursday in response to requests from school districts nationwide. The federal agency affirmed in its announcement that products with Lean Finely Textured Beef in them are safe, affordable - and nutritious.
The USDA sets national nutritional guidelines for school meals, but school districts make local decisions on what foods to feed kids.
Laura Rumpler, a spokeswoman for the Coeur d'Alene School District, said, "Our school district is delighted the USDA will begin offering more choice in ground-beef products. This will allow our district to continue with our goal to offer the safest and most wholesome foods to our students."
Rumpler said the ground beef products the district directly purchases do not contain the controversial filler.
She said district officials currently are working with the Idaho Department of Education to confirm that all five of the beef companies that supply ground beef to Idaho schools through the school commodities program are free of the undesirable fillers.
"So far, four of the five beef suppliers have confirmed that their companies do not use 'pink slime,'" she said. "Our school district will continue to ask the right questions of food suppliers to ensure that we only purchase the highest quality ground beef."
Kevin Doyle, food service director for Lakeland School District, agreed with Rumpler. He said he's waiting to hear back from the state to confirm all suppliers are "slimeless."
Representatives from the Post Falls School District didn't return a message seeking comment.
Schools purchase food from the USDA through the USDA Foods Program, which provides more than 180 food items that are fresh, frozen, packaged, canned, dried, or in bulk.
The USDA gets these products based on the demand from schools to help meet the menu planning needs, student taste preferences, school nutrition goals, and local wellness initiatives.
The agency ensures all food purchased for the National School Lunch Program meets food safety standards, which includes pathogen testing.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the USDA is contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program this year.
For the record, "pink slime" is a phrase coined by a federal microbiologist.
The USDA doesn't have a problem with the filler.
It "urges customers to consult science-based information on the safety and quality of this product," according to an agency press release. "Lean Finely Textured Beef is a meat product derived from a process which separates fatty pieces from beef trimmings to reduce the overall fat content."