A multi-state beef recall in the US has led to renewed focus on mechanical tenderization as a possible cause of increased E. coli risk in beef and pork products.
The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) recalled 248,000 pounds of mechanically tenderized beef products from Oklahoma-based National Steak and Poultry on December 24 after they were linked to 21 illnesses across 16 states.
Mechanical tenderization involves inserting hundreds of tiny needles into tougher beef products to physically break up muscle fibres, and it is also used to inject marinades into pork. It is alleged that the process could transfer any E. coli bacteria that may be on the surface of meat into its core, meaning that consumers would need to heat the product to at least 160°F (71°C) to ensure the bacteria are killed.
The paths made by the needling process are imperceptible after the meat is cut, and currently the USDA does not require that products carry labels specifying that they have been mechanically tenderized.
But the recall has led to calls for labeling, including from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who said in a statement: “USDA has been aware of the E. coli risks associated with mechanically tenderized steaks as early as 1999, but has refused to act. The USDA should move immediately to require labeling that clearly identifies mechanically tenderized beef and pork products for all processing facilities, retailers and consumers.”
Consumer groups, including the Safe Food Coalition and the Consumer Federation of America, have also called for labelling of mechanically tenderized meat in the wake of the current outbreak.
However, the American Meat Institute (AMI) has defended industry’s use of tenderizing techniques, saying that tenderized meat is “comparable in safety to steaks that have not been mechanically tenderized”.
“All steaks in retail stores – whether blade-tenderized or not – must bear safe handling labels instructing consumers how to cook and handle them to ensure they are safe when served,” it said.
The AMI said that the safety of tenderized meat has been thoroughly tested, including by the FSIS, which said in 2008 that E. coli risk is not significantly increased depending on whether a beef steak is intact or not.
The AMI added: “Because blade-tenderized steaks have been found to be comparable in safety, we don’t believe that special labeling declaring the mechanical tenderization process will provide meaningful or actionable information to consumers.”
The FSIS said affected products bear an "EST. 6010T" establishment label and packaging dates "10/12/2009," "10/13/2009," "10/14/2009," or "10/21/2009."
In a statement posted on its website, National Steak and Poultry said: “We take the safety and wholesomeness of our products very seriously and that’s why we are working with the USDA to conduct this recall. This is the first recall in our company’s nearly 30-year history.”
A full list of the recalled products can be found online here .