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As Canada Moves Forward, Rule to Label Mechanicallly Tenderized Meat in U.S. Still Stuck at OMB

A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to require labeling for mechanically tenderized meats, which can be risky if pathogens are pushed into the cut beyond the exterior and the meat is not thoroughly cooked, has now been under review at the White House Office of Management Budget for eight months, far exceeding the 90-day limit the agency is supposed to adhere to. Consumer advocates, who have been calling for labeling for several years, are especially frustrated by the delay with the news that Canada will start mandating labeling in the next two months.

While there are no exact figures, USDA estimates that every month somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million pounds of beef is tenderized, a process that utilizes needles or blades to pierce intact steaks and roasts to make them tender for consumers. While the government recommends consumers cook mechanically tenderized, or non-intact meat, to a higher internal temperature than intact steaks (160 degrees versus 145), there is no requirement to label products so consumers can tell the difference between them.

Mechanically tenderized beef products have been linked to five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in the past decade, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a 21-state outbreak that sparked a large recall on Christmas eve in 2009. In those outbreaks, 174 people fell ill and four died, but most health experts assume those stats don’t capture the full health impact as foodborne illnesses are chronically underreported and usually not successfully linked to a source.

“We believe this is an important public health issue,” said Pat Buck, director of outreach and education for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention.  “We’re not happy that it has not made it out of OMB. We hope it will move forward.”

Buck, who became a food safety advocate after losing her grandson Kevin Kowalcyk to a severe E. coli O157:H7 infection in 2001, said the rule is especially imperative as the United States approaches another grilling season so that consumers know to cook tenderized steaks to a higher temperature, as is recommended for ground beef products.

“We are now going into our fifth grilling since we began asking for labeling,” she said. “It should have happened a long time ago.”

It’s not clear what is causing the lengthy review on the proposed rule, which the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) lists as not economically significant (other economically significant regulations have undergone lengthy reviews at OIRA, which is charged with weighing the costs and benefits of federal agency actions). Inquiries about the delay were not returned by OMB or USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

According to White House meeting records, the American Meat Institute met with OIRA staff in March about the proposed rule, the details of which are unknown to stakeholders. Mark Dopp, AMI’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said the meeting was to discuss a recently released abstract on the proposal.

The abstract posted on the government’s regulatory dashboard said that FSIS is proposing to require the term “mechanically tenderized” on the labels of raw or partially cooked needle or blade tenderized beef products, including products that are injected with marinade or other solutions, unless these products are going to be fully cooked before heading to customers.

According to the outline, FSIS is also “proposing to require that labels of raw and partially cooked needle or blade tenderized beef products destined for household consumers, hotels, restaurants, or similar institutions include validated cooking instructions that inform consumers that these products need to be cooked to a specified minimum internal temperature, and whether they need to be held at that minimum internal temperature for a specified time before consumption, i.e., dwell time or rest time, to ensure that they are thoroughly cooked.”

FSIS estimates that labeling mechanically tenderized products would cost the industry about $3.6 million and would save between 191 and 239 illnesses, thereby saving between $627,000 and $784,000 in medical costs each year.

“We expressed our concerns that the abstract’s characterization of the proposed rule includes a labeling recommendation that is too broad,” said Dopp, when asked about AMI’s meeting with OIRA. “We believe any label should have a distinct purpose and benefit and be something consumers will act on. At this point we have not seen the proposal nor do we know when OMB will issue the proposal. However, we look forward to reviewing it and offering our comments at the appropriate time.”

Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, said the problem is that while Washington delays ordinary consumers have no way of knowing if the steak they are buying and cooking is intact or not and, with a sputtering economy and high unemployment, many consumers are buying cheaper products, which are often tenderized.

“The steaks we’re talking about are not the ones being served at the Palm. The steaks we’re talking about are the ones ordinary folks are buying,”said Tucker-Foreman. “Maybe the folks who work at OMB make too much money, but that should not mean that ordinary folks are the ones put at risk.”

“Labeling can help consumers protect themselves and their families. We hope OMB finishes its review so the rule can be finalized soon,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports, which has over 7 million subscribers, featured mechanically tenderized meat and the potential risks in its June issue.

James Marsden, a food safety professor at Kansas State University, weighed into the debate on the industry trade publication Meatingplace this week.

“This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised in the popular press and until the issue is addressed, it won’t go away,” wrote Marsden. He believes there are two options for the industry: label the products so consumers know to cook them to 160 degrees, which may not be the “most desirable solution,” or add an intervention to to reduce the risk of contamination before tenderizing products to significantly reduce the chance that pathogens can be translocated to the center of cuts.

“It’s up to the industry to decide whether to wait for a regulation that dictates labeling and cooking requirements or to invest in technologies that eliminate the problem before mechanically tenderized products ever reach consumers,” he said.

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