National Consumers League

Food

NCL Food Issues

Mystery meat: mechanically tenderized meat posing summertime safety concerns

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Hot dogs and burgers on a grillWith the official start of summer upon us, many families are breaking out their grills. While some consumers may be aware of more common food safety measures to take during outdoor events—such as making sure to leave food unrefrigerated for no more than two hours, or one if the temperature gets above 90 degrees—there is a new seasonal food safety issue that most have likely never heard of: mechanically tenderized meat.

This strange-sounding product is simply meat that has been tenderized with a blade or a set of needles. While this process can help to make cheaper cuts of meat tender and thus more palatable, it also has the unfortunate side effect of introducing surface contaminants into the interior of the meat. This means that the product must be cooked to the same temperature as ground beef (160 degrees) rather the 145 degrees recommended for regular steaks and roasts. Cooking at the lower temperature runs the risk of allowing some bacteria on the interior of the steak to survive and cause illness. 

If a little extra heat is all that it takes to make mechanically tenderized meat safe, why then is this a major summertime food safety issue? The reason these products present such a concern is that there are currently no regulations requiring that they be labeled to indicate tenderization has occurred. The result of this lack of labeling is that consumers have no way of knowing whether they should use a higher or lower temperature when cooking their seemingly intact meat products.

Having recognized that these products present an enormous concern, NCL has joined with other consumer groups in calling for product labeling. While a proposal for just such labeling has been floating around at USDA for some time, it still has not been issued. Here’s hoping that this will be the last grilling season before USDA finally releases much needed rules about labeling these products.