Kansas focus on problem beef

The Kansas City Star published a couple of highly critical articles about U.S. beef and safety over the weekend.d

A key component was the issue of needle-tenderized beef and I agree, the lack of information about whether meat is needle-tenderized is frustrating, even for those with a PhD in food science.

Many times over the years, I’ve asked industry and retail food safety leaders, what proportion of the beef you sell is needle-tenderized, only to be met with silence or a conversational diversion.

Some leadership.

Excerpts below; the full stories are worth a read.

Three years ago, at age 87, Margaret Lamkin was, according to the Star, forced to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after a virulent meat-borne pathogen destroyed her colon and nearly killed her.

What made her so sick? A medium-rare steak she ate nine days earlier at an Applebee’s restaurant.

Lamkin, like most consumers today, didn’t know she had ordered a steak that had been run through a mechanical tenderizer. In a lawsuit, Lamkin said her steak came from National Steak Processors Inc., which claimed it got the contaminated meat from a U.S. plant run by Brazilian-based JBS — the biggest beef packer in the world.

“You trust people, trust that nothing is going to happen,” Lamkin said, “but they (beef companies) are mass-producing this and shoveling it into us.”

The Kansas City Star investigated what the industry calls “bladed” or “needled” beef, and found the process exposes Americans to a higher risk of E. coli poisoning than cuts of meat that have not been tenderized.

The process has been around for decades, but while exact figures are difficult to come by, a 2008 USDA survey showed that more than 90 percent of beef producers are using it on some cuts.

Mechanically tenderized meat — which usually isn’t labeled — is increasingly found in grocery stores, and a vast amount is sold to family-style restaurants, hotels and group homes. In many cases, grocery stores don’t even know the meat has been tenderized.

The American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, has defended the product as safe, but institute officials recently said they can’t comment further until they see the results of a pending risk assessment by the meat safety division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although blading and injecting marinades into meat add value for the beef industry, that also can drive pathogens — including the E. coli O157:H7 that destroyed Lamkin’s colon — deeper into the meat.

If it isn’t cooked sufficiently, people can get sick. Or die.

There have been several USDA recalls of the product since at least 2000, and a Canadian recall in October included mechanically tenderized steaks imported into the United States.

In a 2010 letter to the USDA, the American Meat Institute noted eight recalls between 2000 and 2009 that identified mechanically tenderized and marinated steaks as the culprit. Those recalls sickened at least 100 people.

The Star examined the largest beef packers including the big four— Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Cargill Meat Solutions of Wichita, National Beef of Kansas City and JBS USA Beef of Greeley, Colo. — as well as the network of feedlots, processing plants, animal drug companies and lobbyists who make up the behemoth known as Big Beef.

What The Star found is an increasingly concentrated industry that mass-produces beef at high speeds in mega-factories that dot the Midwest, where Kansas City serves as the “buckle” of the beef belt. It’s a factory food process churning out cheaper and some say tougher cuts of meat that can cause health problems. The Star’s other key findings:

•  Large beef plants, based on volume alone, contribute disproportionately to the incidence of meat-borne pathogens.

•  Big Beef and other processors are co-mingling ground beef from many different cattle, some from outside the United States, adding to the difficulty for health officials to track contaminated products to their source. The industry also has resisted labeling some products, including mechanically tenderized meat, to warn consumers and restaurants to cook it thoroughly.

•  Big Beef is injecting millions of dollars of growth hormones and antibiotics into cattle, partly to fatten them quickly for market. But many experts believe that years of overuse and misuse of such drugs contributes to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans, meaning illnesses once treated with a regimen of antibiotics are much harder to control.

•  Big Beef is using its political pull, public relations campaigns and the supportive science it sponsors to influence federal dietary guidelines and recast steaks and burgers as health foods people can eat every day. It even persuaded the American Heart Association to certify beef as “heart healthy.”

Big Beef, industry critics contend, has grown too big for Big Government to lasso.

Indeed, the U.S. beef industry is twice as concentrated as it was when President Teddy Roosevelt took on and beat the old Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Morris beef trust in the early 1900s. The big four packers today slaughter 87 percent of all heifers and steers.

“Roosevelt,” remarked Montana rancher Dan Teigen, “would be spinning in his saddle.”

Thanks in large part to the Midwest’s grassy plains and ample row crops, the United States produces 26 billion pounds of beef a year from 34 million cattle — more than any other country.

Four of the seven largest beef slaughterhouses — each capable of killing 6,000 head a day — are in Kansas, which leads the nation in meat processing.

The big slaughterhouses are among the last vestiges of old-line American manufacturing, except that they take things apart instead of putting them together. Meat slaughter and processing employs 260,000 people, and Big Beef’s highly efficient plants supply a large share of those jobs in the Midwest.

As a result, despite recent price hikes, beef costs less in the United States than anywhere in the world. It has become America’s crude oil — in high demand worldwide, including faraway lands where a newly-minted middle class is acquiring a taste for more expensive protein.

James Marsden, a food safety professor at Kansas State University, agreed that the industry is improving, but said it could do a better job with mechanically tenderized steaks.

“E. coli is impossible to eradicate from beef cattle,” he said. But a key to eliminating it in mechanically tenderized steaks is to use “interventions” such as spraying lactic acid on the meat to reduce or eliminate surface contamination. Some companies do that, he said, but the USDA does not require it.

For years, the USDA has urged the industry to voluntarily label such products, but found in 2008 that few beef plants were doing so. Costco is among stores that do label such products as being bladed. Those labels advise consumers that “for your safety USDA recommends cooking to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.”

Not labeling mechanically tenderized beef jeopardizes consumers and puts health officials at a disadvantage if there’s an outbreak, experts said.

American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle responded to the Star articles by stating:

“Nine months ago, we were asked to participate in an in-depth story for the Kansas City Star about the beef industry. We were told that the paper would examine the industry through the eyes of four beef packers. The industry has recognized the need to communicate and to be more transparent. That’s exactly what we all did.

By our count, reporter Mike McGraw benefitted from visits to two large packing plants, at least one feedlot and a processing plant. He was allowed to bring cameras. This was truly unprecedented access to the industry and its operations. Industry executives provided countless interviews. AMI did its best to answer any question posed and even plotted charts when asked for additional data presented in ways that we didn’t have readily available. Our colleagues at other associations responded similarly.

We believed that by cooperating, he would see what we saw: a beef industry that provides the safest and most affordable beef supply in the world. We know that we cannot rest on the progress achieved and must always strive to do better, but we find it impossible to reconcile the conclusions reached by the Star with data from data from CDC, FSIS, OSHA and other agencies. 

The end result was a huge disappointment. Perhaps the most telling aspect in the series is his pejorative use of the term Big Beef (capitalized) throughout the pieces and his references to Big Government (also capitalized). “

Safest food supply in the world isn’t going to convince anybody.

16 sick; Alberta beef plant to reopen, producing food as safe as it was before outbreak; questions remain

Canadians can go back to sleep, the XL plant in Alberta has been cleared to reopen.

The 16 E. coli O157:H7 victims and their families may have a few more questions.

So may the rest of Canadians and anyone else concerned about two aspects of this outbreak: how do people know if beef has been needle tenderized, and should recalled meat be dumped in a landfill or processed for further use? Oh, and whether the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does anything, with their 40 inspectors and six veterinarians in the plant. And whether XL cares about anything other than profit.

As David Acheson, former food safety  guru at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said when spinach returned to the shelves in 2006 after an E. coli outbreak that killed four and sickened 200, “the spinach on the shelf will be as safe as it was before the outbreak.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as usual, has little to say.

It’s apparently up to journalists and consumers to ask. Because they are the critical control point in farm-to-fork food safety.


Especially when an official with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was unable to explain Monday how the public can be certain of when it needs to take extra precautions around needle tenderized beef in the absence of any requirement that retailers or restaurants label tenderized products.

“That’s a very difficult question,” said Dr. Gregory Taylor, the health agency’s deputy chief public health officer.

Yeah, that’s why you have your job; do it.

Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told the Calgary Herald the tenderization of beef has been “quite widespread” in this country for years.

Klassen said research by Dr. Colin Gill at the federal agriculture facility in Lacombe had determined that medium-rare cooking of adulterated cuts was adequate to ensure food safety.

“There wouldn’t be much point in cooking it to 71 C,” he said.

“The tenderness would be lost cooking it to that temperature.”

So you and Health Canada duke it out, and let consumers know if you ever come to some sort of evidence-based recommendation. In the meantime, I expect the usual platitudes about how consumers are responsible for cleaning, cooking, chilling and separating, with no mention of the other point the World Health Organization includes, which is sourcing food from safe sources: how would anyone know if the beef they are buying is from the XL plant?

Another nagging issue is: should the meat at the XL plant have been sent to a landfill – which much of it was – or should it have been further processed at a federally inspected facility? That is supposedly why those inspectors are there with their E. coli vision goggles.

Alberta Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith’s response to a Red Deer man’s tweet questioning whether tainted XL Foods meat could be saved to feed the poor instead of being sent to a landfill put the politician on the defensive.

Smith said she made a mistake and has learned a lesson about social media.

But beef that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 is routinely diverted to cooked products like canned meat.

As usual, a PR stormfest could be minimized if the rules were clearly laid out and managers/bureaucrats/farmers/retailers got past the trust me mode and instead just said, this is what we do and why we do it.

Is that E. coli really gone? What happens to O157 when slow-cooking roast beef or grilling blade tenderized steaks

Many will be bringing out the beef for a celebratory New Year’s feast (I’ve taken to steaming or grilling oysters on the BBQ).

Steaks and roasts are generally regarded as lower-risk products than hamburger because the meat is intact and E. coli, salmonella and friends can be killed by searing the outside, while the inside can be rare and microbiologically safe.

But what if needles pushed the E. coli on the outside of the steak to the inside? That’s what happens during blade or needle tenderization and the practice appears to be common although no one is saying how common.

It was Christmas 2009, when an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened at least 21 people was linked to blade tenderized or non-intact beef served at Appleby’s. There have been other outbreaks.

So what are consumers to do? Don’t expect labeling at retail any time soon. But two new research papers offer some insights.

Luchansky et al. build on previous work and conclude that E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 STEC were spread throughout the interior of blade-tenderized steaks, and that when cooked on a gas grill, significant numbers of both pathogens were eliminated, but some survivors were recovered due, presumably, to uneven heating of the blade-tenderized steaks.

So what’s the policy and consumer recommendation for cooking steaks?

Wiegand et al. report that calculations based on D- and z-values obtained from isothermal ground beef studies increasingly overestimated destruction of E. coli O157:H7 in commercially cooked whole-muscle beef as process severity increased.

So what’s the policy and consumer recommendation for cooking roasts?

The abstracts are below.

Fate of Shiga toxin-producing O157:H7 and non-O157:H7 Escherichia coli cells within blade-tenderized beef steaks after cooking on a commercial open-flame gas grill
Journal of Food Protection®, Volume 75, Number 1, January 2012 , pp. 62-70(9)
Luchansky, John B.; Porto-Fett, Anna C.S.; Shoyer, Bradley A.; Call, Jeffrey E.; Schlosser, Wayne; Shaw, William; Bauer, Nathan; Latimer, Andheejeong

We compared the fate of cells of both Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 (ECOH) and Shiga toxin-producing non-O157:H7 E. coli (STEC) in blade-tenderized steaks after tenderization and cooking on a gas grill. In phase I, beef subprimal cuts were inoculated on the lean side with about 5.5 log CFU/g of a five-strain mixture of ECOH or STEC and then passed once through a mechanical blade tenderizer with the lean side facing up. In each of two trials, 10 core samples were removed from each of two tenderized subprimals and cut into six consecutive segments starting from the inoculated side. Ten total cores also were obtained from two nontenderized (control) subprimals, but only segment 1 (the topmost segment) was sampled. The levels of ECOH and STEC recovered from segment 1 were about 6.0 and 5.3 log CFU/g, respectively, for the control subprimals and about 5.7 and 5.0 log CFU/g, respectively, for the tenderized subprimals. However, both ECOH and STEC behaved similarly in terms of translocation, and cells of both pathogen cocktails were recovered from all six segments of the cores obtained from tenderized subprimals, albeit at lower levels in segments 2 to 6 than those found in segment 1. In phase II, steaks (2.54 and 3.81 cm thick) cut from tenderized subprimals were subsequently cooked (three steaks per treatment) on a commercial open-flame gas grill to internal temperatures of 48.9, 54.4, 60.0, 65.6, and 71.1°C. Regardless of temperature or thickness, we observed 2.0- to 4.1-log and 1.5- to 4.5-log reductions in ECOH and STEC levels, respectively. Both ECOH and STEC behaved similarly in response to heat, in that cooking eliminated significant numbers of both pathogen types; however, some survivors were recovered due, presumably, to uneven heating of the blade-tenderized steaks.

Evaluating lethality of beef roast cooking treatments against Escherichia coli O157:H7
Journal of Food Protection®, Volume 75, Number 1, January 2012 , pp. 48-61(14)
Wiegand, Kimberly M.; Ingham, Steven C.; Ingham, Barbara H.
Added salt, seasonings, and phosphates, along with slow- and/or low-temperature cooking impart desirable characteristics to whole-muscle beef, but might enhance Escherichia coli O157:H7 survival. We investigated the effects of added salt, seasoning, and phosphates on E. coli O157:H7 thermotolerance in ground beef, compared E. coli O157:H7 thermotolerance in seasoned roasts and ground beef, and evaluated ground beef-derived D- and z-values for predicting destruction of E. coli O157:H7 in whole-muscle beef cooking. Inoculated seasoned and unseasoned ground beef was heated at constant temperatures of 54.4, 60.0, and 65.5°C to determine D- and z-values, and E. coli O157:H7 survival was monitored in seasoned ground beef during simulated slow cooking. Inoculated, seasoned whole-muscle beef roasts were slow cooked in a commercial smokehouse, and experimentally determined lethality was compared with predicted process lethality. Adding 5% seasoning significantly decreased E. coli O157:H7 thermotolerance in ground beef at 54.4°C, but not at 60 or 65.5°C. Under nonisothermal conditions, E. coliO157:H7 thermotolerance was greater in seasoned whole-muscle beef than in seasoned ground beef. Meeting U.S. Government (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, 1999, Appendix A) whole-muscle beef cooking guidance, which targets Salmonella destruction, would not ensure ≥6.5-log CFU/g reduction of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef systems, but generally ensured $ 6.5-log CFU/g reduction of this pathogen in seasoned whole-muscle beef. Calculations based on D- and z-values obtained from isothermal ground beef studies increasingly overestimated destruction of E. coli O157:H7 in commercially cooked whole-muscle beef as process severity increased, with a regression line equation of observed reduction = 0.299 (predicted reduction) + 1.4373.

Meat served at firefighter’s fundraiser source of E. coli O157:H7; sickens 27

Pamela Sage told California’s Contra Costa Times that it’s hard to believe tri-tip served at a Sept. 6 benefit barbecue to support volunteer firefighters made at least 27 people sick with E. coli O157:H7.

Sage said if the bacteria really did come from the meat or other food served at the event, she and the other firefighters would be glad to take responsibility for it, but the meat was handled with great care, meat thermometers were used to ensure it was done, and it was served with tongs. Sage also said the Public Health Department had acted irresponsibly in identifying the tri-tip as the source of the bacteria when officials still weren’t sure.

That was two weeks ago.

On Monday, Butte County Public Health confirmed that E. coli O157:H7 grown form leftover samples of the tri-tip meat were a genetic match with samples from sick people.

Epidemiology remains a powerful tool.

Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County health officer said it’s still not known how the cooked meat became contaminated, and it may never be known.

Food preparers at the event had the right equipment and, according to interviews, seemed to do everything right, he said, but obviously something went wrong.

When large amounts of food are prepared there is the potential for contamination, he said. It’s possible the cooked meat came into contact with juices from the raw meat. Or possibly, he said, someone who helped prepare the food was sick and didn’t wash his or her hands properly.

Bill Marler says an intact cut like tri-tip could became contaminated during the tenderizing process.