Sometimes events come together that highlight a serious problem. That certainly is the case with the recent Canadian Beef recall by XL Foods.

Over the past two weeks, XL Foods, Inc. – a Canadian firm – has expanded its recall thirteen times to now include all beef products produced at XL Plant #38 during the high event period of = Aug 24, 27, 28, 29 and Sept 5 – a total in excess of one million pounds of recalled products.  That means that any beef destined to become ground beef, plus all steaks, roasts and other cuts destined for retail sale, are potentially contaminated with the deadly E. coli O157:H7 and need to be returned or discarded.

These products – which have been distributed in the United States – have been associated with nine illnesses in Canada.  Four of these illnesses have been linked to consuming contaminated steaks.

Recalls have happened before – so, what makes this one different?

First and foremost, the Canadian XL Beef recall includes beef steaks and roasts that have been “mechanically tenderized.”  Most consumers are aware that ground beef carries a higher risk for contamination and know that undercooking ground beef can potentially lead to a foodborne illness.  However, most consumers are not aware that many raw steaks and roasts have been mechanically tenderized prior to sale.  In fact, most consumers do not even know what that process involves.

Mechanical tenderization is generally done in a processing plant and uses needles or blades, attached to a rotating machine, to tenderize meat and poultry products.   Sometimes, the product is also “enhanced” with water or a marinade.  After the process is completed, the needle holes or blade cuts disappear and the product appears as if it had never been treated.  Multiple studies – including ones conducted by USDA – have shown that this process can transfer or “translocate” foodborne pathogens to the inside of the meat where it is harder to kill.  As a result, mechanically tenderized meat needs to be treated like ground beef and must be cooked to a higher temperature.  Unfortunately, USDA does not require this type of product to be labeled so the consumer purchasing the product has no way to identify which cutlets, chops, steaks or roasts have been mechanically tenderized and which ones are “intact.”

USDA estimates that about 18% of all beef steaks and roasts sold in this country are mechanically tenderized, yet without a label, there is no way for a consumer to determine whether or not a particular product has been treated.  Consumer groups, recognizing the important food safety issue involved, have been pushing for the past three years to get USDA to label mechanically tenderized meat products.  In mid-September, right before the Canadian XL Beef recall was announced, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack approved the proposed labeling rule and sent it to the White House for further review and approval.  Meanwhile, Americans are at risk of being sickened with an E. coli O157:H7 infection due to mechanically tenderized beef products associated with the Canadian XL recall.

All consumers should check USDA’s public health alert and then click on the “retail distribution list” to determine if a particular retail outlet in a particular state had Canadian XL Beef for sale.  Return or discard any product associated with this recall.

Consumers can also write to the Office of Management and Budget and tell OMB and the President that USDA’s label proposal for mechanically tenderized meat must be approved immediately.  Consumers have the right to know if their meat and poultry products have been treated with mechanical tenderization prior to sale.

Patricia Buck is Director of Outreach and Education at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention