A proposed new USDA requirement for clear consumer labeling of “mechanically tenderized” beef is “long overdue,” says Robert L. Buchanan, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland.
The use of sharp needles or blades to tenderize meat by breaking up muscle fiber can push pathogens on the meat’s surface deep into the interior, where they are less likely to be reached and eradicated by cooking or surface cleaning. It’s fairly common practice; the USDA estimates that 37 percent of meat processors use at least some mechanical tenderization. Since 2003, mechanically tenderized beef has caused at least five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks, linked to 174 illnesses, one of them fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some retailers, like Costco, have already begun labeling mechanically tenderized meat—they call it “blade tenderized,” and include a minimum cooking temperature recommendation.
“If a consumer doesn’t realize that a cut of meat has been mechanically tenderized, they might cook it very rare, and not heat the interior to a temperature that is hot enough to get rid of the pathogen,” says Dr. Buchanan, who was with the USDA in 1994 when the agency defined ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 as “adulterated.” “The problem of mechanically tenderized meat wasn’t taken care of in that original declaration,” he points out.
“This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically tenderized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions, so that consumers and restaurants can safely prepare these products,” wrote USDA Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen, MD, in a release announcing the proposal.
The comment period for the proposed rule is open until mid-August.