Unbeknownst to most consumers, many steaks sold in America are mechanically tenderized, a process that makes meat more tender but can transfer bacteria into the center of the steak. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consumers cook these non-intact steaks to a higher internal temperature to kill bacteria, they don’t have to be labeled. That may be about to change.

mechanical-tenderizer-308.jpg“We do believe they should be labeled. This is important information for consumers to have,” Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen told a House appropriations committee last week.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) brought up the issue during a hearing, arguing that consumers need informative labeling as grilling season approaches. The USDA currently recommends a whole cut steak be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. But a tenderized steak, which has been punctured with needles or blades, is recommended to hit 160 degrees, just like hamburger, to kill any harmful bacteria that could lurk within.

“Now once people know that, they need to take the responsibility for the product after that,” said DeLauro. “But if we don’t tell them that it is mechanically tenderized or that it has to be grilled at a certain temperature, then they are going to be at risk.”

Consumer advocates warned USDA about the risks posed by unlabeled tenderized steaks since the Summer of 2009, six months before a multi-state outbreak sparked the recall of 250,000 steaks for E. coli O157:H7 contamination over Christmas.

In addition to recommending that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service require tenderized meat be labeled as such, consumer groups have asked the agency to issue a press release and develop food safety messaging to inform consumers that tenderized steaks should be cooked to a higher internal temperature.

During the hearing, DeLauro said a rule to label tenderized steaks has been in the works at FSIS since 2009 and asked the agency for a specific timetable.

“We are hoping to have it out by the summer,” said Hagen.