USDA proposes labeling 'blade' tenderized meat

After scores of illnesses and a three-year battle by consumer groups, federal officials on Thursday proposed new mandatory labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized meat.

The move comes on the heels of a Kansas City Star investigation that focused in part on problems with mechanically tenderized beef products.

That series, published last December, included the story of Margaret Lamkin, a Sioux City, Iowa, grandmother who was forced to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after she ate a contaminated medium-rare mechanically tenderized steak at an Applebee’s restaurant.

Federal officials confirmed that the long-awaited labeling proposal covers meat that has been tenderized with mechanical needles or blades to make it more tender –– a process that federal studies show can drive harmful pathogens into the center of the meat, where they can survive the cooking process.

The proposal –– a warning to steak lovers who prefer their meat rare –– must still be published in the federal register, where the public and the meat industry can make comments to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Those comments could prompt changes in the proposal before it becomes a final rule. The process usually takes several months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said mechanically tenderized meat has sickened at least 174 people, but the newspaper’s series, called “Beef’s Raw Edges,” noted that food safety advocates believe there could be many more victims of eating “bladed” beef.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many because the products have not been required to be labeled.

“Mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts look no different than non-tenderized cuts of meat,” Pat Buck, a consumer advocate who has long pushed for the labels, said today. “Yet, for safety, they must be cooked longer or reach a higher temperature.

“USDA’s own studies show that the tenderization process pushes pathogens into the interior of the meat,” said Buck, director of outreach and education for the Center for Foodborne Illness.

But another advocate suggests the proposal came too late.

“The Obama Administration has missed any good this rule would do for this grilling season since the rule will probably not be finalized until this winter,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch.

The USDA first proposed a labeling requirement for the products last year, but until now the rule remained mired in the White House bureaucracy.

The Canadian government proposed a similar rule several weeks ago after that country’s largest outbreak ever of illnesses caused by meat contaminated with the E. coli O157:H7 pathogen.

Some of the 2.5 million pounds of meat recalled in that outbreak was mechanically tenderized, and an unknown amount of that meat had been shipped into the U.S.

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