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FOOD SAFETY

Soon you'll know whether your steak has been mechanically tenderized

A new USDA labeling rule will help protect consumers

Published: May 21, 2015 01:15 PM

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It will soon be possible to greatly reduce your risk of getting a potentially deadly form of food poisoning from steak or other cuts of beef, thanks to a new federal labeling rule that Consumer Reports’ food safety advocates have long been urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put into place to protect consumers.

The recently issued final rule, which will take effect in May 2016, requires labeling for beef that’s been mechanically tenderized, a process in which a machine punctures the meat with blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers (shown below). Mechanically tenderized beef is served 6.2 billion times a year in the U.S.

You can’t tell just by looking whether a particular steak or roast has been tenderized in this way. And that’s a problem because, as we reported in "Mechanically Tenderized Beef Needs a Label," this process can drive bacteria, such as the deadly pathogen E. coli O157:H7, from the meat’s surface deep into its center. In the U.S., this type of beef was the source of at least five E coli O157:H7 outbreaks from 2003 to 2009, causing 174 illnesses, one of which was fatal according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a 2013 study conducted by Canadian health officials concluded that the risk of getting sick from eating mechanically tenderized beef is approximately five times that of intact cuts of beef.

Given this, it’s important to know what you’re buying, and that’s why our food safety experts have been pushing for more than five years for the government to require such meat to be labeled.

For more information on food safety, check our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide.

Beef being mechanically tenderized

That’s just part of the solution, though. Even when it’s labeled, this beef still carries a higher risk of contamination, and therefore has to be cooked accordingly. Here’s where the USDA’s rule falls short. “USDA clearly is taking a very important step forward to protect consumers’ health because they’ll finally have a way of knowing whether the beef they’re buying has been subjected to this tenderizing process,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “Unfortunately, we don’t agree with the agency’s decision on recommended cooking temperature.”

A steak that hasn’t been mechanically tenderized is likely safe, even if cooked rare, if it is seared on the outside, because the bacteria are on the meat’s surface and will be killed during broiling or grilling. The new rule would allow companies to list 145° F (medium rare) as a safe cooking temperature for mechanically tenderized steak. But Hansen says 160° F (medium) is a safer bet. That’s the recommended temperature for ground beef, which has a similar contamination concern—as the meat is ground, any bacteria present gets mixed in, so the outside and the inside of a burger must be thoroughly cooked.

Another piece of safe cooking advice that’s missing from the USDA’s label requirements: the advice to flip steaks twice during cooking to achieve an even distribution of heat needed to kill bacteria. So as you're grilling this Memorial Day, remember: Flip that steak twice and use a meat thermometer to be sure you're reaching an internal temperature of 160° F.  

—Andrea Rock

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