Mechanically tenderized steaks are comparable in safety to unprocessed steaks and do not need special labeling, according to the American Meat Institute (AMI), the group that represents 95 percent of the red met industry.

The safety of mechanically tenderized steaks–also referred to as blade- or needle-tenderized–has come into question in the midst of a nationwide recall initiated last week. Oklahoma-based National Steak and Poultry recalled 248,000 pounds of the processed steaks after federal officials linked E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in several states to the steaks.

mechanical-tenderizer.jpgMechanically tenderizing steaks can cause harmful pathogens, which would otherwise remain on the surface of the meat, to penetrate the center of the product, requiring a higher cooking temperature to ensure safety.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a champion of food safety issues in the House, responded to the recall news Monday by calling for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to require labeling that differentiates mechanically tenderized steaks from those that are not.

“USDA has been aware of the E. coli risks associated with mechanically tenderized steaks as early as 1999, but has refused to act,” said DeLauro in a statement. “The USDA should move immediately to require labeling that clearly identifies mechanically tenderized beef and pork products for all processing facilities, retailers and consumers. Restaurants, grocery stores, and consumers should be made fully aware of the products they are receiving so they can assure they are cooked at the appropriate temperature.”

A coalition of food safety advocates told Food Safety News they warned Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the risks of mechanically tenderized steaks last June, but they have yet to see policy changes or receive a formal response to their concerns.

The safety of mechanically tenderized steaks

According to AMI, mechanically tenderized steaks simply do not present a greater risk.

“USDA scientists and public health experts have studied this steak tenderization process thoroughly,” said AMI executive vice president James Hodges in a statement provided to Food Safety News. “In 2008, FSIS said, ‘The risk of illness from E. coli O157:H7 in non-intact beef steaks is not significantly higher than intact beef steaks.’  (Dr. Carl Schroeder, presentation “FSIS Risk Assessments for E. coli O157:H7,” April 9, 2008).”

“All steaks in retail stores–whether blade-tenderized or not–must bear safe handling labels instructing consumers how to cook and handle them to ensure they are safe when served,” explained Hodges.

“Because blade-tenderized steaks have been found to be comparable in safety, we don’t believe that special labeling declaring the mechanical tenderization process will provide meaningful or actionable information to consumers,” added Hodges.

Food safety advocates disagreed with AMI’s assessment and use of USDA data.

“That risk assessment, according to agency officials, had a very limited sample of mechanically tenderized beef products that were evaluated,” said Tony Corbo, a food safety lobbyist at Food & Water Watch. “It is not a good guide to use.”

“The AMI is once more proving itself to be the king of specious spin when it comes to meat safety,” said Denis Stearns, a leading food safety attorney and partner of Seattle-based Marler Clark LLP.  

“In opposing any effort to let consumers know whether the steaks they buy are mechanically tenderized, James Hodges claims that such steaks have been “found to be comparable in safety” to those that are intact.  Well, arsenic is comparable to ice cream too, but that doesn’t mean that they’re equally safe,” added Stearns.

Though there is debate over what USDA data says about the safety of tenderized steaks, the agency does recommend a higher cooking temperature for the processed steaks.

“It is nice that the [USDA] recommends a cooking temperature of 160 degrees for mechanically tenderized meat, but without labels, how is a consumer to distinguish between a steak that has been mechanically tenderized from one that is not?” said Corbo.