Food safety advocates warned Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in June about the risks presented by mechanically tenderized steaks; Advocates say the ongoing multi-state E. coli outbreak could have been prevented.

In the wake of the Christmas Eve announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that an Oklahoma firm was recalling almost 250,000 mechanically tenderized steaks for E. coli contamination tied to illnesses in six states, Food Safety News has learned that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was warned of the risks associated with the processed steaks in June 2009.

A coalition of food safety advocates sent Vilsack a letter and memo, which outline the specific risks presented by “non-intact” or blade-tenderized steaks, and recommend that the agency require labeling and educate consumers to minimize the risk to public health. 

According to the group, Vilsack and his staff have not acted on their recommendations and have yet to issue a formal response to the documents.

“[Mechanically tenderized meat products], such as steaks and roasts, have been tenderized through a process that repeatedly inserts small needles or blades into the product,” according to the letter, signed by the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Center for Science and the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, and Food & Water Watch, all key members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition. 

“These needles or blades pierce the surface of the product increasing the risk that any pathogens located on the surface can be transferred to the interior of the product,” said the letter, which explained that because the agency does not require such products to be labeled as “non-intact,” consumers and retailers “do not have sufficient information to assure the products are cooked to an appropriate and safe temperature.”

According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), over 50 million pounds of mechanically tenderized product are sold each month–but most consumers have no way of knowing whether their steak has been processed.

In addition to recommending that FSIS require tenderized meat be labeled as such, the coalition asked the agency to issue a press release and develop food safety messaging to inform consumers that tenderized steaks should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, just like hamburger, because bacteria could lurk in the center of the meat.

The group also recommended that FSIS require mechanically tenderized steaks be tested for E. coli O157:H7.

So far, FSIS has not responded to the group’s recommendations.

“The USDA had ample time to start correcting, but delayed,” said Pat Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, who lost her two-year-old grandson, Kevin, to E. coli complications in 2001. 

“This outbreak has caused illnesses that could have definitely been avoided,” added Buck.

Tony Corbo, a food safety lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, had only four simple words to add: an admittedly unfortunate, “We told you so.”

Disclosing retail locations

The agency has also come under fire for not quickly disclosing which restaurants received the recalled steaks. Though the initial recall announcement was made Christmas Eve, as of publication time, the USDA had yet to release a list of retail establishments that received the products.

“It’s all about transparency,” said Bill Marler, leading foodborne illness attorney and food safety advocate.  “This is the failure of government and industry to be transparent–this is a perfect example of that.”

“They’ve known about the outbreak for a while. The fact that they don’t tell us which restaurant received the meat is absurd. It’s either they don’t know which restaurants received the meat, which I don’t believe, or they don’t want the public to know, which is wrong,” added Marler, who also emphasized most people wouldn’t know whether they’ve ever eaten a needle-tenderized steak due to the lack of labeling requirements. “It’s not transparent to the public. In this day of transparency, it’s the same old, same old.”