WASHINGTON—A coalition of food safety advocates is calling on the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately approve a proposal to label mechanically tenderized beef products, which would provide consumers with information on how to properly cook the products and reduce their risk for foodborne illness.
In an Aug. 24 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, members of the Safe Food Coalition also asked USDA to develop and implement a sampling program for the detection of pathogens in non-intact beef products. The letter also stated that USDA also should implement an educational outreach campaign to inform the public and foodservice meat purchasers about the proper cooking and handling procedures necessary to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from mechanically tenderized beef products. Once signed by Vilsack, the proposal would be sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review.
According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) 2007 Beef Checklist, approximately 18% of all beef steaks and roasts sold in the United States are mechanically tenderized. Often used on less expensive cuts of meat to increase tenderness, mechanical tenderization is a process by which small needles or blades are repeatedly inserted into the product. The needles or blades pierce the surface of the product increasing the risk that any pathogens, such as E. coli or Salmonella, located on the surface of the product can be transferred to the interior. In order to kill pathogens that may be located on the interior of the products, consumers must cook the products differently than they would intact steaks and roasts.
The coalition asserts that without labeling to identify the products as mechanically tenderized and non-intact products, and information on how to properly cook the products, consumers may be unknowingly at risk for foodborne illness. Labeling of mechanically tenderized products would allow consumers to identify the products in the supermarket.
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 2009, members of the Safe Food Coalition wrote to USDA urging the mandatory labeling of these products. Consumer groups raised the issue again in January 2010 following the Dec. 24, 2009, recall of 248,000 pounds of mechanically tenderized steaks that sickened twenty-one people in 16 states. In June 2010, the Conference for Food Protection petitioned FSIS to put forward regulations that would require mechanically tenderized products to be labeled.