On Christmas Eve 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that National Steak and Poultry was recalling 248,000 pounds of mechanically tenderized beef products contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Within days of the recall announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 21 people from 16 states had become infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 after eating the mechanically tenderized steaks.  Public health agencies in Calif., Colo., Fla., Hawaii, Iowa, Ind., Kan., Mich., Minn., Nev., Ohio, Okla., S.D., Tenn., Utah, and Wash. reported that residents of their states had become ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating the recalled steaks.

Last week, Marler Clark, filed a lawsuit against National Steak and Poultry in Utah on behalf of a 14-year-old boy who became infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in October 2009.  He was sick for weeks and hospitalized for several days.

Generally, it has been believed that steaks are not considered a high-risk source of E. coli O157: H7. However, when steaks are mechanically tenderized (also, blade-or needle-tenderized), that process introduces the possibility that bacteria from the surface of the meat can be transferred to the inside of the product.  The mechanical tenderization of meat products like steaks and roasts involves a process of repeatedly inserting small needles or blades into the product. These needles or blades pierce the surface of the product, increasing the risk that any pathogens located on the surface of the product can be transferred to the interior of the product.

Since steaks are cooked to a wide range of internal temperatures, the insides of steaks often do not reach a temperature hot enough to kill E. coli bacteria.  In essence, an undercooked mechanically tenderized steak poses a risk for E. coli O157:H7 contamination similar to that of an undercooked hamburger.  That’s why the USDA recommends cooking a mechanically tenderized steak to an internal temperature of 160 degrees–the same recommended internal temperature for a cooked hamburger.

Last June, food safety advocates from 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, sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, outlining the specific risks presented by “non-intact” or mechanically tenderized steaks.  

The coalition urged USDA to require labeling on non-intact meat cuts and to educate consumers about the risks of under-cooking such meat products to minimize the risk to public health.  They have not yet received a formal response from Vilsack or the USDA.  

Advice from the Make Our Food Safe Coalition included the following, which FSIS should implement immediately:

  • Issue a press release as soon as possible indicating that the current cooking guidelines and temperatures for intact beef products are not safe for all beef products that look intact. [Specifically, that mechanically tenderized steaks should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, just like hamburgers.]
  • Take immediate steps to develop regulation that will require labeling to clearly identify mechanically tenderized, non-intact beef and pork products for all processing facilities, retail purchasers, and consumers. 
  • Initiate a FSIS program to assess the effectiveness of public health messaging, so that effective food safety messages can be delivered to all food safety stakeholders.

As the USDA is aware, the outbreak traced to National Steak and Poultry products is not the only E. coli outbreak traced to mechanically tenderized steaks in the last decade.  There have been several others.  It is time for USDA to implement steps to prevent more outbreaks like the following:

In Mar. 2003 six people developed E. coli O157:H7 infections after consuming steaks produced by Stampede Meat, Inc., of Chicago, Illinois.  The steaks, which were later recalled, had been blade-tenderized and injected with marinade.

In Aug. 2004 patrons of a Colorado Applebee’s restaurant became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating beef products produced by Quantum Foods of Bolingbrook, Ill.  The firm recalled approximately 406,000 pounds of frozen beef products for potential E. coli O157:H7 contamination.

In May 2007 Davis Creek Meats and Seafood of Kalamazoo Michigan recalled nearly 130,000 pounds of beef products in 15 states because of possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  The recalled boxes of mechanically tenderized steaks and ground beef were linked to E. coli O157:H7 illnesses.

In May 2007, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak investigation by the Fresno County Department of Community Health revealed that tenderized, cooked tri-tip sold by The Grill at the Meat Market and served at several catered functions was the source of the outbreak.

In Sept. 2008 at least 24 attendees of a Forest Ranch, Calif. Fire Department fundraiser became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating tenderized tri-tip beef served at the event.

Several studies [as recently as 2009] have been undertaken to determine if the mechanical tenderization process transfers pathogens from the surface to the interior of beef products. A study by Luchansky et al., found that depending on the level of surface contamination, mechanical tenderization of beef products transferred E. coli O157:H7 into the topmost 1 cm of product in 90% to 100% of samples and into the topmost 2 cm of product in 55% to 98% of samples.

FSIS knows the risks and must act now to prevent future illnesses from tenderized steaks.