USDA proposes new labeling for mechanically tenderized beef

Federal food safety officials today proposed new labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized beef products, a step designed to reduce the foodborne illness risk related to the products.

The proposal would also add new cooking instructions to the label so consumers can more safely prepare the beef cuts, according to a statement today from the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Some intact cuts of beef are tenderized with blades or needles before sale, which can drive contaminants such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 into the interior of the meat where it can survive cooking temperatures. The products require thorough cooking and shouldn't be served "rare" or "medium rare."

According to USDA background guidance for developing validated cooking instructions for the products, mechanically tenderized beef should be cooked at medium-high heat until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. The beef should rest for at least 3 minutes after it is removed from the grill before serving.

Since 2003 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported five outbreaks linked to mechanically tenderized beef served in homes or restaurants, the FSIS said. Mechanically tenderized steaks were among the products recalled last fall in an E coli outbreak in Canada that was related to the country's largest ever beef recall, which involved XL Foods Inc., based in Brooks, Alberta.

The proposed labeling is designed to let consumers know they are purchasing a product that has been mechanically tenderized and to display validated cooking instructions.

The USDA is asking for comments on the proposed labeling requirements to be submitted in the next 60 days.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) today applauded the USDA's proposal. Chris Waldrop, who directs CFA's Food Policy Institute, said in a statement that the move is good news for consumers. "Without labeling, consumers would never know that the steak they are purchasing has been mechanically tenderized and may present a greater risk for foodborne illness," he said.

Sarah Klein, senior food safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said in a statement that the proposed requirement is a "common sense remedy that can protect consumers."

She said consumers and restaurants should use more care when cooking the products and urged the USDA to speed the requirement and make the labels mandatory by January 2014.

"In the meantime, consumers should ask at the meat counter if the products they are buying have been mechanically tenderized and select intact cuts if they prefer meat rare or medium rare," Klein said in the statement.

Meanwhile, a representative for the meat industry today said that including validated cooking instructions would be valuable, but he questioned the mechanically tenderized labeling provision. James Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute (AMI) said in a statement that requiring products like sirloin steak to be called "mechanically tenderized sirloin steak" could confuse consumers, leading them to believe that the product has been changed.

He said that in some cases, marinade or solution is added, which is a different type of tenderized product. Though both types of mechanically tenderized beef have good safety records, concerns have been raised almost exclusively with products that have added solutions. "It is troubling that the USDA is taking a one-size-fits-all approach to this diverse category of products," Hodges said in the statement.

See also:

Jun 6 USDA news release

Jun 6 CSPI statement

Jun 6 CFA statement

Federal Register notice

Jun 6 AMI statement

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