For at least another three years, consumers shopping for steak and other whole cuts of beef will continue to be left in the dark about beef treated with mechanical tenderization, a processing technique that softens up meat but can drive potentially harmful pathogens below the surface.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working on new mandatory labels for mechanically tenderized beef, but in order to get those labels implemented by 2016, they needed to be finalized by USDA and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the end of 2014.
The agencies didn’t meet that deadline, and now the earliest consumers will see labels on mechanically tenderized beef in grocery stores will be 2018. That’s due to the fact that new labeling laws are implemented in two-year increments to make things easier on manufacturers.
Consumer groups and members of Congress had been urging the agencies to finalize the rules before the end of 2014, noting that failing to do so would put consumers at unnecessary risk for at least another two years.
“It’s extremely disappointing because consumers are going to be at risk from this product for much longer than they need to be,” said Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “The delay was totally unnecessary.”
Waldrop told Food Safety News that he placed most of the blame for the delay on USDA. After the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service drafted the proposed labeling rules, USDA held up the process for too long at the department level before finally sending it to OMB for approval in late November.
“OMB really could have turned it around quickly, but the USDA didn’t really give them enough time to finish the process by the end of the year,” Waldrop said.
USDA officials did not have a comment on the situation and directed inquiries on the status of the rules to OMB.
On Dec. 31, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) urged the Obama administration to put out a rule on mechanically tenderized beef labeling before the clock struck midnight.
“These products are not currently adequately labeled so consumers do not know that they are different, present different risks, and require different preparation than whole cuts of beef,” she said in a written statement. “This is not a small problem: a 2008 USDA study indicated that about 50 million pounds of mechanically tenderized beef products are sold every month.”
Mechanical tenderization of beef poses health risks because it can transfer potential pathogens from the surface of the meat down into the center. If the cuts are cooked rare or not thoroughly enough, the pathogens in the center may go on to sicken the consumer.
A number of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have been connected to mechanically tenderized beef, including the 2012 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Canada from XL Foods, which resulted in the largest beef recall in Canadian history. According to USA Today, at least five outbreaks in the U.S. have recently been attributed to mechanically tenderized beef, resulting in 174 confirmed illnesses and four deaths.
In a bit of positive news, the federal government did pass labeling rules on meats with added salt solutions just ahead of the year-end deadline.
Waldrop said that his organization and other consumer-advocacy groups planned to push the Obama administration to find some way to still implement mechanical tenderization labeling for 2016. Since some companies will have to change their labels for both added solutions and mechanical tenderization, doing so at the same time would make sense and save money.
Still, he expressed skepticism over the viability of pushing through the rules for 2016 now that the 2014 deadline was missed.
“There was no reason for this not to happen,” he said. “USDA delayed the thing.”© Food Safety News