Chicago Teachers Should Have a Beef about LFTB Policy, by Cherylyn Harley LeBon

lebon_smWhen Chicago schoolteachers recently went on strike, the only city-run schools open were those set up to serve meals to needy students.

While striking Windy City teachers screamed about pay and evaluation standards, food was a problem apparently being ignored despite it affecting health and spending.

What do school meals have to do withthe teachers’ strike? Earlier this year, misleading media reports — largely from ABC News — caused a scare over the use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in ground beef. Safety concerns arose primarily because of an antimicrobial used in its production. LFTB was smeared as “pink slime.”

Foodie elitists shuddered because many school lunch programs used LFTB.

As a mother of two young, school-aged children, safety is always my first concern. That’s why I scrutinized as many sources of information about LFTB as I could find. I have yet to find credible information that LFTB is unsafe to consume. LFTB has been used in ground beef for over ten years, and U.S. government agencies have repeatedly deemed it safe and nutritious.

Moreover, LFTB was approved by the World Health Organization for use in food products other than beef. Because LFTB is roughly 95 percent lean, it is often blended with cheaper hamburger to increase protein levels.

But, this past March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed school districts to decide whether or not to purchase meat blended with LFTB for its school lunch programs.

Herein lies the problem. Thanks to the media-inspired LFTB backlash, families are likely paying more for LFTB-free ground beef. In Chicago city schools, administrators chose more expensive or higher fat beef not blended with LFTB.

One must wonder the logic behind this move considering rising childhood obesity rates, teacher demands and a bad economy.

Ground beef now accounts for over half of all beef consumed in the United States. For the 2010 school year, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provided 109,226 pounds of ground beef to schools.

But only 19 percent of all school food is provided through the NSLP.  Approximately 81 percent of school food is commercially-acquired.

So there’s an estimated 436 million pounds of additional ground beef to be bought —around 11.5 pounds per student per school year. But some estimates put hamburger consumption at nearly 30 pounds per student per year.

That’s a lot of ground beef for the 404,151 students in Chicago’s city-run schools.

A July agricultural analysis by The Netherlands’ Rabobank showed a 66 cents per pound jump in ground beef prices in the first three months of the LFTB flap. National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg pegged the cost increase even higher, at 75 cents per pound.

It would seem Chicago schools are now paying between $3 million and $9 million more for hamburger over the course of a single school year.  As teachers unions and city officials deadlocked over salaries, nothing seemed to be said about the millions of dollars squandered on less nutritious, more expensive ground beef.

And the media’s role in demonizing LFTB is heading to court.

After being forced to close three of four of its manufacturing plants, the company Beef Products is suing ABC News for $1.2 billion for its LFTB reporting. The attorney for Beef Products, Dan Webb, says ABC is singled out for its “sustained, concerted long-duration attack” on LFTB in which consumers were “convince[d]” the meat was unsafe.

Perhaps the Chicago schools and their teachers might want to weigh in as well.

Schools can certainly choose to pay more for hamburger free of LFTB. School districts across the country, however, have many other useful and worthwhile ways to spend their money. Limited resources often create a juggling act.

Wasting money on an unproven food safety issue is neither smart nor beneficial in particular for the parents and children whom school districts must serve.

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Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a former senior counsel on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, is a member of the Project 21 black leadership network. Follow her on Twitter (@HarleyLeBon). Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.

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