Following a December 24, 2009 recall of 248,000 pounds of mechanically tenderized steaks that sickened 21 consumers in 16 states, nine of whom were hospitalized, consumer groups are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require labeling identifying all mechanically tenderized meat products; to include these products in its sampling program; and to inform the public and restaurants about the need for adequate cooking of these products.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has linked the illnesses to mechanically tenderized steaks produced by National Steak and Poultry and distributed to restaurant chains.
Often used on less expensive cuts of meat to increase tenderness, mechanical tenderization is a process that inserts small needles or blades into a meat product, such as a steak or roast. These needles or blades can transfer any pathogens located on the surface of the product to the interior, increasing the risk to consumers if the product is not cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the pathogens. FSIS estimates that over 50 million pounds of mechanically tenderized products are produced each month. Currently this product is unidentifiable to consumers or institutions.
Assuring adequate cooking temperatures for mechanically tenderized products is particularly important. USDA currently recommends that consumers cook beef steaks and roasts to 145°F while it recommends that consumers cook ground beef products to 160°F in order to kill any pathogens that may have been distributed throughout the product. The higher cooking temperature for ground beef products is warranted, given that ground products may have pathogens distributed throughout the product, not just on the surface.
Mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts present a similar risk to consumers because pathogens may not be just on the surface of the product. These products require higher cooking temperatures to ensure that all internal pathogens have been killed. This is especially important since many consumers prefer steaks cooked to rare or medium, which means the products are cooked to a temperature lower than 160°F. Since mechanically tenderized products are not labeled, food preparers may be cooking these products to unsafe temperatures and putting themselves, their families and customers at risk of deadly foodborne illness.
In a June 2009 letter to USDA, consumer groups outlined concerns that mechanically tenderized products presented an unnecessary risk to consumers. The letter, signed by numerous consumer groups, urged USDA to issue labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized products and to develop educational materials for the restaurant industry and the public. To date, USDA has not responded to those requests.
These groups, along with NCL, Consumers Union, and S.T.O.P., Safe Tables Our Priority, recently urged USDA to take steps immediately to address this risk to the public. The groups specifically ask USDA to:
- Require labeling that will allow all meat purchasersto clearly identify mechanically tenderized, non-intact meat products;
- Develop an educational outreach campaign to inform the public and retail meat purchasers about the proper cooking and handling procedures necessary to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from mechanically tenderized meat products; and
- Develop and implement a sampling program for the detection of E. coli O157:H7 in mechanically tenderized meat products.