After KC Star stories, senator pushes for rule on labels on some beef products

A U.S. senator from New York who is a member of the Agriculture Committee urged a federal agency Thursday to expedite a proposed rule requiring labels on mechanically tenderized beef products.

“I firmly believe prompt action is required in order to protect the health of American consumers from serious food-borne illness,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency is reviewing the labeling rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food safety groups have urged the USDA to require the labeling issue for several years.

Gillibrand’s letter came in response to a series of stories published earlier this week in The Kansas City Star.

The Star reported that the mechanical tenderization process can drive food-borne pathogens, such as a virulent form of E. coli bacteria, deep into the interior of beef products, such as steaks. If they’re not cooked sufficiently, people can become sick.

“Currently, consumers are largely unaware that this risk exists, and many consumers do not routinely cook beef cuts such as steaks well enough to eliminate such pathogens,” Gillibrand said in her letter to Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

She told agency officials that because of concerns about the process, “you should make every effort to expedite the release of this proposed labeling rule in order to inform consumers about potential and serious risks of food-borne illness.”

Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement Thursday that “the Obama administration is committed to food safety and we have taken key steps including putting out a rule cracking down on salmonella in eggs and expanding E. coli testing for beef.

“We work as expeditiously as possible to review rules. When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right.”

As part of the regulatory process to require labels for mechanically tenderized meat, the public, consumer groups and the beef industry will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal when it is made public.

The Star’s series, “Beef’s Raw Edges,” profiled several victims who became ill after eating medium rare, mechanically tenderized steaks at restaurants. Food safety advocates said there could be many victims of eating so-called “bladed” beef, but it’s difficult to determine because such products are often unlabeled when sold to restaurants and grocery stores.

The Star’s series also noted that doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City believe antibiotic-resistant infections in two young victims of the 2011 Joplin tornado likely resulted from the overuse of antibiotics in livestock.

The Star’s series reported that the beef industry spends millions of dollars on public relations campaigns and supportive science in an effort to influence the federal Dietary Guidelines, which are used to determine nutrition standards for school lunch programs and what goes on food product labels, among many other things.

Gillibrand, the first New York senator to sit on the farm state-dominated Senate Agriculture Committee in 40 years, said she is concerned about “the continual and evolving threats to food safety.” She has often expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Food Safety and Inspection Service the USDA’s meat safety inspection agency.

Officials at the Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to discuss specifics of the Office of Management and Budget proposal, including its risk assessment, because it’s under review.

Gillibrand has introduced legislation aimed at expanding protections for consumers from antibiotic-resistant strains of food-borne illness such as salmonella, and has written letters to the USDA about proposed changes in regulations in light of a recent recall of Canadian beef contaminated with E. coli.

She also has expressed concerns about a recent USDA proposal to modernize poultry inspection that she says “may not provide adequate assurances that public health protection will be maintained.”

Gillibrand was appointed in January 2009 to fill the seat vacated when Hillary Rodham Clinton was appointed secretary of state. Gillibrand won a special election in 2010 and was re-elected last month.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, could not be reached for comment Thursday on Gillibrand’s letter to the Office of Management and Budget.