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Mechanically tenderized beef needs a label

The meat industry opposes a proposed labeling rule, but the safety risk outweighs producers' concerns

Published: October 2013
Beef being mechanically tenderized

Mechanical tenderizing of steak and other cuts of beef is a process in which a machine punctures the meat with blades or needles to make it more tender (photo above).  

Seems harmless enough—anyone who eats beef wouldn't want a tough cut. But this process isn't as innocuous as it seems. In fact, mechanical tenderizing—also called blade tenderizing—can drive bacteria from the surface deep into the center of the beef, where it’s harder to kill off bacteria. Cooking mechanically tenderized beef rare or medium-rare might not be sufficient to kill off harmful bacteria. In fact, mechanically tenderized beef caused at least five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks from 2003 to 2009, causing 174 illnesses, one of them fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The potential risk of mechanically tenderized beef is clear, but when you're shopping today or for your end-of-year holiday festive meals, you can’t tell by looking at a piece of meat whether it's been mechanically tenderized. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, thinks this beef needs a label that tells you what you're buying and how to cook it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed new rules to require a label for all mechanically tenderized beef products. The label would include specific instructions for consumers and restaurants to safely prepare these products.

Read our report on the recent salmonella outbreak with Foster Farms raw chicken and learn more about our food-safety efforts.

We recently filed public comments with the USDA (PDF) about its proposed rules. We commended the agency recognizing that mechanically tenderized beef presents a higher safety risk than non-mechanically tenderized choices. The USDA plans to conduct a campaign to explain the significance of the term mechanically tenderized, and we think that’s essential to helping people enjoy these products safely.

As the USDA prepares a final set of rules, we have some recommendations to make sure the labels are as useful and effective as possible. The words mechanically tenderized and the cooking instructions should be highlighted in some way, such as placing a brightly colored sticker with that information right below the usual label. Currently, the proposed rules would let producers design their own label, but we think the labeling ought to be consistent and uniform.

We agree with the USDA that labels should have cooking instructions with explicit information on how to prepare the product to ensure it’s safe to eat. But we believe its proposed recommendation of cooking the beef to 145° F and letting it rest for three minutes should be revised. Based on recent studies, we think 160° F is necessary, and steaks should be flipped over twice during cooking.

Some meat processors and packers oppose the USDA's plan. The American Meat Institute recently said the proposed rules should be withdrawn from consideration. Yet some retailers are already labeling mechanically tenderized beef voluntarily. (Costco identifies such beef as "blade tenderized" on packages.)

We think the labels ought to be mandatory for all mechanically tenderized beef products, and we’re going to keep pressing to get the best labels possible.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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