WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture announced it will allow school districts to order product either with or without lean finely textured beef (LFTB).

In a press release, the agency reaffirmed the safety of LFTB, but said "customer demand" spurred the agency to change its procurement practices.

"USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable – including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef," the release stated. "However, due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without lean finely textured beef."

The product has come under scrutiny following negative media reports surrounding the use of LFTB in the food supply. The process used to make LFTB uses ammonium hydroxide to separate meat from fat and to rid the trimmings of foodborne pathogens such as E. coli. USDA said the product is safe for consumption.

"USDA continues to affirm the safety of lean finely textured beef product for all consumers and urges customers to consult science based information on the safety and quality of this product. 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."

J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, released a statement in response to USDA's decision. He said"...It is truly unfortunate and a severe disservice to our nation’s beef producers and all consumers that media outlets have resorted to misleading the American public and sensationalizing this safe, lean beef product."

He adde that LFTB is nutritious for children and affordable for school districts on tight budgets.

"This lean beef product, like all beef, is naturally rich in nutrients like zinc, iron, protein and B vitamins," Alexander said. "It can be added to other cuts of beef to produce ground beef. Lean finely textured beef offers affordable nutrition for kids, which is critical given shrinking school budgets, rising food costs and the fact that for many kids, school lunch is the best chance at getting a well-balanced meal during the day.

"Hands down, lean finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product that school districts can choose to include in their school lunch plans," he added.