About a quarter of the beef sold in the U.S. is tenderized by manufacturers using needles or blades, an unlabeled treatment that regulators say contributes to contamination with E. coli and other pathogens.
Beginning as soon as next year, companies will have to disclose on their labels whether their raw or partially cooked steaks, roasts and other cuts of beef have been “mechanically tenderized,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed today. The labels will also have to include cooking instructions to help protect consumers.
Meatpackers have increasingly turned to mechanical methods to make their beef more tender, such as puncturing large pieces with needles to break down muscle fibers and in some cases injecting with water and juices. Consumer groups called for labeling, citing research that shows the needles can push E. coli from the surface to deep inside the meat where the pathogen is harder to kill through cooking.
“Mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts look no different than non-tenderized cuts of meat, yet for safety, they must be cooked longer,” Pat Buck, director of outreach at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “The USDA’s own studies show that the tenderization process pushes pathogens into the interior of the meat.”
The beef industry remains focused on ensuring pathogens such as E. coli, which is found in feces, don’t contaminate meat products to begin with, Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the Oakland, California-based North American Meat Association, said in an interview. The proposal may be costly to smaller operators that may need to order new labels, he said.
“The most important thing is to keep the pathogen out in the first place, and that’s our focus,” Russell said.
Costco Wholesale Corp., the largest U.S. warehouse-club chain, has been labeling such beef for about nine months so consumers know the importance of cooking the meat long enough to kill any pathogens.
“The data was compelling, we’ve been looking at this,” said Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance at the Issaquah, Washington-based retailer. “We felt it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
The proposed rules are subject to a public comment period and should be in place by next year. The labels will instruct that the beef be cooked to 145 degrees with a three-minute rest time, the USDA said.
“Ensuring that consumers have effective tools and information is important in helping them protect their families against foodborne illness,” Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, said in the statement.
Five outbreaks attributable to needle or blade tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes have occurred since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The outbreaks occurred from 2003 to 2009 and resulted in 174 illnesses, according to the Atlanta-based CDC.