USDA defends 'pink slime,' calls filler safe

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- For the first time, U.S. government officials are addressing concerns over so-called "pink slime," a filler commonly added to ground beef.

"There's a firestorm with people misunderstanding the situation," said Kathleen Merrigan, the Department of Agriculture's Deputy Secretary.

"We are 100 percent behind the safety of this product. No question about it," she said in an interview at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix.

It marks the first comment from a USDA official on the controversy, which started growing several weeks ago.  Consumers and watchdog groups voiced concern over the "pink slime" additive, which is essentially scrap meat pieces compressed together and treated with an antibacterial agent.  

The USDA and meat industry refer to the filler product as "finely-textured beef."   It's been added to ground beef products for years and is USDA approved.

"We would not be providing this product to schools if we thought it was unsafe, clearly," Merrigan said.  She says it's a lean product that helps lower the fat content of ground beef.

Still, the USDA will now give school districts it provides with beef the option of choosing beef without the filler product.

Merrigan, who says she serves ground beef with the filler at her home and allows her daughter to eat it  at school without concern, says the USDA will not re-examine the product.

"Absolutely not," she said. "It's safe."