Government & Politics

USDA to require labels on mechanically tenderized beef

New federal rules require mechanically tenderized beef to be specially labeled with instructions for safe cooking methods.
New federal rules require mechanically tenderized beef to be specially labeled with instructions for safe cooking methods. KRT FILE PHOTO

Mechanically tenderized meat must be labeled and include safe cooking instructions, according to a rule announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The long-awaited rule, which will go into effect next year, comes after a Kansas City Star investigation in 2012 exposed health risks associated with beef that has been run through a mechanical tenderizer.

Mechanical tenderizers hammer meat with dozens of needles or small blades to increase tenderness, a sought-after trait by consumers. But the process can drive dangerous pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella deep inside steaks, roasts and other beef products, where they can survive cooking to rare or medium-rare temperatures, even when the meat appears fully cooked.

Mechanically tenderized beef needs to be cooked to a higher internal temperature and also needs to rest for a specific amount of time before it is safe for consumption.

“Labeling mechanically tenderized beef products and including cooking instructions on the package are important steps in helping consumers to safely prepare these products,” USDA Deputy Undersecretary Al Almanza said in a prepared statement. “This common-sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses.”

There have been at least six outbreaks of foodborne illness attributable to mechanically tenderized beef prepared in restaurants and homes since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Star’s investigation, “Big Beef: Beef’s Raw Edges,” featured the story of one 87-year-old woman who had to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after falling ill from a pathogen inside a mechanically tenderized steak she had eaten at an Applebee’s restaurant.

The illness destroyed Margaret Lamkin’s large colon and almost killed her.

Mechanically tenderized beef looks no different than intact cuts. Without any labels to distinguish meat that has been blade- or needle-tenderized, consumers or restaurants have no idea that they’ve bought something that needs to be cooked more thoroughly.

The USDA expects the new labeling requirement will prevent hundreds of illnesses every year, the agency said Wednesday.

The meat industry defends the safety of products that are mechanically tenderized, arguing that they don’t need special labeling.

“Data show that our proactive, food safety efforts have improved these products’ safety profile over the last several years,” Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement Wednesday.

But Carpenter said his group recognizes that the USDA’s new rule is less burdensome than an earlier version and represents a compromise.

“We will work with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to implement the new labeling requirement in the most effective manner for both industry and consumers,” he said.

The public health importance of labeling mechanically tenderized beef is reflected in the USDA’s decision to move up the deadline for implementation of the rule to May 2016 from 2018, said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney in the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

“The best thing about it is they recognized that there’s no reason to wait another two years to implement the rule under their practice of giving companies extra time to implement labeling rules,” Plunkett said.

“The companies know it’s coming, they are probably already prepared for it,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and get this in place so consumers know what’s what with the food they’re eating.”

Plunkett and other food safety advocates, who have pushed the USDA for years to require labeling of mechanically tenderized meat, welcomed the new rule Wednesday.

The rule is “a huge step forward,” said Pat Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness, Research and Prevention, a nonprofit public health organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“This is really an urgent public health issue that can be mitigated to some degree with this label,” Buck said. “The consumers have no idea that the product actually even exists, and so by putting a label on it consumers will be better protected.”

The USDA estimates that mechanical tenderizing is used for about 11 percent of beef products annually, or 2.6 billion pounds. But Buck said people who work in beef processing plants estimate that the percentage is actually much higher — about 90 percent.

Buck also would like the labeling rule to apply to poultry and pork products that have undergone mechanical tenderizing.

“That would be the common-sense thing to do,” she said. “But given that most people will thoroughly cook their pork and poultry, where it was most urgently needed was with the beef.”

Hollow needles are sometimes used to inject flavorings, or what the industry calls “digestive agents,” or marinades. That can add to contamination risks.

Surveys of beef producers by the USDA found that most use mechanical tenderization to improve quality. A large percentage of mechanically tenderized meat winds up in family-style restaurants, hotels, hospitals and group homes.

Mechanically tenderized meat has been the subject of several USDA recalls since at least 2000. A Canadian recall in 2012 included mechanically tenderized steaks imported into the United States, but it’s not clear how many people were sickened.

In a 2010 letter to the USDA that The Star reported two years later, the American Meat Institute noted eight recalls between 2000 to 2009 that identified mechanically tenderized and marinaded steaks as the cause. Those recalls sickened at least 100 people.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, has estimated that mechanically tenderized beef could have been the source of as many as 100 outbreaks of E. coli and other illnesses in the United States in recent years. Those cases affected more than 3,100 people who ate contaminated meat at wedding receptions, churches, banquet facilities, restaurants and schools, the center said.