By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - Two of the biggest U.S. supermarket operators, Safeway Inc and Supervalu Inc, will stop buying the ammonia-treated beef product critics call "pink slime" because of customer concerns, the companies said on Wednesday.
The halt by the No. 2 and 3 supermarket chains is a fresh blow to use of the ground beef product, also known as lean finely textured beef, which has drawn criticism from food activists.
Although the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and industry experts said the meat was safe, "recent news stories have caused considerable consumer concern about this product," Safeway said in a statement.
"Safeway will no longer purchase ground beef containing lean finely textured beef."
Michael Siemienas, a Supervalu spokesman, said the company would no longer buy fresh ground beef with the product for its grocery stores, which include Albertsons and Cub Foods.
Siemienas and Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said the product would not be removed from stores.
Lean finely textured beef triggered a public outcry this month when the Internet news source The Daily reported that 7 million pounds of lean finely textured beef would appear in school lunches this spring.
After a furor over the report, the USDA said last week it was allowing school districts to opt out of using the product starting next school year.
Fast-food chain McDonald's Corp stopped putting the USDA-approved ammonia-treated meat into its hamburgers in August after activists including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver drew attention to it.
A PUFF OF AMMONIA
Lean finely textured beef is made from beef trimmings, the pieces of meat that result when carcasses are cut down into steaks, roasts and other cuts.
The trimmings are heated to soften fat and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat. A puff of ammonium hydroxide, an ammonia and water mix, is used to kill bacteria.
The product is at least 95 percent lean and about 800 million pounds is made every year, according to the American Meat Institute, an industry group. The top producer is South Dakota's Beef Products Inc.
Linda Golodner, a former president of the National Consumers League, called the furor over lean finely textured beef "unfortunate" because the product had helped cut the potential for food-borne illnesses.
"This is one product that actually prevented a lot of outbreaks of e. Coli and other pathogens because it's safe," she said.
Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said in an interview with Food Safety News that consumers were troubled about "the idea of this product."
"They didn't know that this was going into their food before. I think it would be more productive to be able to educate people about this," she said. A spokesman confirmed her remarks.
Among other retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc said in a statement its Walmart and Sam's Club units would start to offer fresh ground beef that did not contain lean finely textured beef.
The Kroger Co, the biggest U.S. supermarket chain, said it carried ground beef with and without lean finely textured beef.