Consumer groups urge labeling of mechanically tenderized meat products

On Christmas Eve, 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced some 248,000 pounds of tenderized beef were being recalled and was eventually linked to 21 E. coli O157:H7 infections in 16 states.

Needle or blade tenderized beef is typically used on tougher cuts of beef or pork to break down muscle fibers or to inject marinade into meat. About 50 million pounds of needle- or blade-tenderized meat is produced in the U.S. each month, according to a federal study, but it’s not required to be labeled.

All hamburger should be cooked to a thermometer-verified 160F because it’s all ground up – the outside, which can be laden with poop, is on the inside. With steaks, the thought has been that searing on the outside will take care of any poop bugs like E. coli and the inside is clean. But what if needles pushed the E. coli on the outside of the steak to the inside?

Luchansky et al. wrote in the July 2009 Journal of Food Protection that based on inoculation studies, cooking on a commercial gas grill is effective at eliminating relatively low levels of the pathogen that may be distributed throughout a blade-tenderized steak. But others recommend such meat be labeled because it may require a higher cooking temperature.

Today, members of the Safe Food Coalition wrote today to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to immediately approve a proposal to label mechanically tenderized beef products. The proposal must be approved by the Secretary before it is sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

Without labeling to identify these products as mechanically tenderized and non-intact products, and information on how to properly cook these products, consumers may be unknowingly at risk for foodborne illness. Labeling of mechanically tenderized products would allow consumers to identify these products in the supermarket.

Based on estimates from the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s 2007 Beef Checklist, approximately 18% of all beef steaks and roasts sold in the U.S. are mechanically tenderized. This means that approximately 50 tons of mechanically tenderized products are produced each month.

USDA has known about this potential threat for many years. As early as 1999, USDA/FSIS publicly stated that mechanically tenderized meat products were considered non-intact products because the product had been pierced and surface pathogens could have been translocated to the interior of the product.

USDA/FSIS further stated, “As a result, customary cooking of these products may not be adequate to kill the pathogens.” At that time, USDA/FSIS said that they would not require a label for these products but strongly encouraged industry to label all non-intact, mechanically tenderized meat products with safe food handling guidance. To date, industry labeling of these products is rare.

In June 2010, the Conference for Food Protection petitioned FSIS to put forward regulations that would require mechanically tenderized products to be labeled.

The letter to Secretary Vilsack is available at