On Tuesday the Kansas City Star published the final installment of “Beef’s Raw Edges,” its three-day investigative series examining the current state of the U.S. beef industry.
The project was spearheaded by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw.
The work follows a yearlong investigation during which The Star was given rare access to the processing plants of two of the four major U.S. beef suppliers, as well as packing plants and a large-scale cattle feedlot. The resulting stories highlight issues such as non-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock, the industry’s funding and propagation of pro-beef research and the safety risks of mechanically tenderized steak.
The Star’s investigation into mechanical tenderization determined that the use of the technology exposes consumers to an increased risk of foodborne illness.
A significant amount of beef consumed in the U.S. is sent through a machine with dozens of needles or blades that puncture and sometimes marinate the steak in an effort to improve the texture of cuts sometimes considered cheaper and tougher.
When the steaks are punctured, however, fecal contaminants on the surface may get driven down further into the meat. If these steaks are cooked on the rarer side, pathogens such as E. coli have the chance to survive within them and eventually infect diners.
In many cases, consumers, restaurant staff and supermarket managers do not know — and cannot tell — when a steak has been mechanically tenderized. A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that 90 percent of beef producers are using the technique on at least some cuts, though the practice does not require any additional labeling.
Speaking to The Star, Margaret Lamkin said she had no idea the steak she ordered from an Applebee’s restaurant three years ago was mechanically tenderized. She fell ill with a severe E. coli O157:H7 infection several days later. The 90-year-old grandmother must now wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
Ashley Ashbrook, a 17-year-old high school senior, also faced a difficult ordeal when she contracted an E. coli infection after eating a medium-rare steak at another Applebee’s. That steak, too, was tenderized without the knowledge of Ashbrook or her parents.
Ashbrook’s illness developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney disease associated with severe E. coli infections. Three years later, she still suffers from high blood pressure and anemia, along with kidney abnormalities.
The Star’s McGraw told Food Safety News that the paper’s investigation unfolded during a fascinating year for the beef industry. Cattle herds were at their smallest since the 1950s. Beef prices were on the rise. And then there was the controversy over lean finely-textured beef — the product derided as ‘pink slime’ — that hijacked mainstream headlines shortly after The Star’s research began.
“I should point out that I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan,” McGraw added. “I love beef.”
The beef industry, however, may not be feeling the love. On Monday American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle issued a statement reacting to the series, calling it “a huge disappointment.”
“This was truly unprecedented access to the industry and its operations,” Boyle wrote. “Industry executives provided countless interviews. AMI did its best to answer any question posed and even plotted charts when asked for additional data presented in ways that we didn’t have readily available.”
“We believed that by cooperating, he would see what we saw: a beef industry that provides the safest and most affordable beef supply in the world,” Boyle continued. “We know that we cannot rest on the progress achieved and must always strive to do better, but we find it impossible to reconcile the conclusions reached by the Star with data from CDC, FSIS, OSHA and other agencies.”
McGraw said he did not want to contest the AMI’s statement. The Star provides responses from industry spokespeople within its featured articles.
Accompanying the feature on mechanical tenderization is a response that highlights the millions of dollars industry has invested in reducing E. coli contamination rates. According to federal data, E. coli contamination rates in ground beef fell 72 percent between 2000 and 2010, while infections in humans fell 52 percent from 2000 to 2011.
McGraw said The Star was upfront with its industry subjects when first contacting them about access to their facilities and records.
“I was very clear with the industry early on,” he said. “I said ‘I’ve got a year to look at the beef industry. I don’t really know yet what I’m going to find or what I’m going to do. I’ll tell you right now that I’ll likely trip across some things you won’t like me writing about, but if you want to help me with this I would be appreciative.'”
Spokespeople for the AMI did not respond to an inquiry from Food Safety News for further comment.
The USDA is currently conducting an assessment of mechanically tenderized beef to estimate the true risk associated with the product, but so far all findings remain under wraps.
McGraw said he calls the USDA every day to ask about that assessment. It’s part of a job that fewer journalists are able to undertake these days.
“I think that consumers and the food industry would benefit from more journalism,” McGraw said. “I think it’s a shame that we used to have agriculture reporters at most daily newspapers in the Midwest and we don’t anymore.”© Food Safety News