A group of food safety advocates is calling on the Obama Administration to make good on its proposal to require labeling for mechanically tenderized meat. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday, the Safe Food Coalition called on the agency to require that mechanically tenderized meat bear a label that includes instructions on how to safely cook this meat. In the past, USDA has differentiated mechanically tenderized steaks–which have been probed with a series of small metal blades or needles–from “intact” steaks, which it says need only be cooked to 145 degrees F because bacteria does not penetrate into the middle of intact cuts. Mechanically tenderized cuts, however, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, like ground beef, to allow for the fact that bacteria may have penetrated further into the meat. In January of 1999, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service listed mechanically tenderized meat as a non-intact meat in its policy on beef products at risk of contamination with E. coli O157:H7. “Pathogens may be introduced below the surface of these products as a result of the processes by which they are made,” said the agency. According to research from Kansas State University, approximately 3 to 4 percent of E. coli bacteria can be carried from the surface of contaminated meat to the inside of the beef product. However, the agency does not currently require a label on tenderized steaks indicating that they should be cooked to a higher temperature. “Without a label to identify mechanically treated meat products, along with information to help mitigate the risk, the unsuspecting purchasers of these products – whether they are restaurant cooks or consumers – will have no idea that the product that they have selected needs additional protective handling and preparation,” says the Safe Food Coalition letter, signed by member groups. In March of this year, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) submitted a rule to the federal Office of Management and Budget suggesting that “raw, needle or blade, mechanically tenderized, meat and poultry products be labeled to indicate that they are ‘mechanically tenderized.’ It goes on to propose that tenderized meat labels “include cooking instructions that have been validated to ensure adequate pathogen destruction.” Mechanically tenderized beef products were implicated in at least 6 E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks between 2003 and 2009. The latest – in December of 2009 – sickened at least 21 people in 16 states. The American Meat Institute says that tenderization is not necessarily what led to contamination in these outbreaks, and that evidence shows mechanically tenderized steaks are no riskier than intact ones. In February of 2010, AMI said it had reviewed outbreaks linked to tenderized meat and determined that all meat implicated in these outbreaks had been further altered beyond tenderization. “From this review AMI has determined that all of the recalls due to outbreaks were related to the consumption of marinated or enhanced steak products,” said AMI Vice President of Food Safety and Inspection Services Scott Goltry. “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,” said the American Meat Institute in 2009 in response to calls for mandatory labeling of tenderized steaks. Dr. Richard Raymond, who was Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA from 2005-2008, says the idea of requiring a label on mechanically tenderized meat came up in internal meetings at FSIS while he was in office, but that he decided against it given the small number of illnesses that had been linked to these meats at the time and the potential damage it could do to the industry. “I felt the risk was not significant enough to require a labeling process,” Raymond told Food Safety News. “In theory, it is absolutely possible that you can drive bacteria into the inner part of the steak. In actuality, there haven’t been that many illnesses linked to blade-tenderized steaks,” says Raymond. “If you choose to put it on the label people are going to say, ‘Well what does that mean?’ You have to have an explanation if you say it’s been mechanically tenderized,” he says. “A lot of people wouldn’t buy a steak that had that label on it because they’re not going to cook them well-done. It’s like putting the radura symbol on meat that’s been irradiated. It’s scary. It will make people think the product is less reliable.” Current Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen pushed for acceptance of the proposal to label mechanically tenderized meats in front of the House Appropriations committee in March. “We do believe (mechanically tenderized meats) should be labeled. This is important information for consumers to have.” The rule is still under review at OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.