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

  • pawpaw

    Just wondering:
    Has a food scientist or journalist come up with a catchier phrase for “mechanically tenderized meat”.   If this is popularized, will the originator and promoters of such phrase be sued?

  • Ethel

    I therefore conclude that their HACCP program is only on paper because if they actually went through the hazard analysis, this would have been identified.

    • John Munsell

      I have a report entitled “Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Blade Tenderized Beef” authored by Dr. James Marsden, Regents Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University and Ann Rasor, Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, North American Meat Processors Association.  This report was issued perhaps 8 years ago.  Two pertinent statements from the report are as follows:  “Because there is no data to indicate a risk associated with O157:H7 in blade tenderized beef steaks, because scientific research indicates that the risk associated with O157:H7 in blade tenderized product is not greater than that associated with O157:H7 in intact beef products after cooking to low temperatures, and because of the interventions beef products go through prior to blade-tenderization, the hazard is not reasonably likely to occur”.

      Another:  “Even after adding a 2 log margin of safety, steaks cooked to 130 degrees F would be considered more than adequate from a safety perspective”.  Also, “In practice, the temperature of the steaks would rise even more [after cooking], and that would add an extra level of lethality”.

      USDA/FSIS Office of Policy, Program Evaluation and Development (OPPDE) released a report entitled “Interpretive Summary Comparative Risk Assessment for Intact (Non-Tenderized) and Non-Intact (Tenderized) Beef” on March 18, 2002.  One statement was “NACMCF concluded that non-intact, blade tenderized beef steaks do not present a greater risk to consumers if the meat is oven broiled and cooked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees F or above”.  The same report also stated “The Kansas State University data also suggests that multiple-pass tenderization may not result in significantly more E.coli O157:H7 being translocated from the surface to the interior of meat”.

      I utilized these scientific reports to conclude that the my use of  a needling machine, and cuber, did not likely present a hazard.  FSIS never challenged me on this.  I’m not aware that the agency now requires plants to address the use of such equipment as a hazard likely to occur.

      This is not the first recall caused by tenderized meat laced with E.coli.  I believe there have been at least 3 previous recalls caused by tenderized meat.  The recall I best remember occurred in June/July, 2003, from Stampede Meat Inc of Chicago, of 739,000 lbs.

      Therefore, Ethel, at least in the past, and I presume today, HACCP Plans’ Hazard Analyses do not require the industry to treat mechanical tenderization as a pathogen hazard likely to occur.  Let’s don’t give too much credibility to written HACCP Plans!  FSIS-style HACCP is an imposter, frequently not based in science.  True HACCP requires CCP’s which will Prevent, Eliminate or Reduce hazards to a less-than-detectable level.  Let’s be fully honest up front here:  raw meat & poultry do not have true CCP’s, in the absence of irradiation or full cooking.  All raw meat & poultry carries risk, with or without labels.  FSIS has lulled consumers to sleep, while claiming that its version of HACCP results in a “Zero Tolerance” standard for pathogens. 

      Please realize that written HACCP Plans are NOT a panacea, and are frequently theoretical in nature, not practical in many cases.  But, FSIS is fully comfortable with placing their primary emphasis on auditing company-generated paperflow, instead of inspecting meat. 

      HACCP is not the primary problem here.  Instead, the agency’s deliberate deregulation of the largest slaughter plants is a consumer’s nightmare.  The fact that FSIS has declared that E.coli O157:H7 on the surface of intact cuts is NOT an adulterant further exacerbates the problem.   FSIS’ historical unwillingness to conduct tracebacks to the SOURCE of contamination has also been counter productive for the goal of safe food.

      I feel these HACCP clarifications are essential for everyone to know.

      John Munsell

  • Teresa Schwartz

    Thanks for the helpful advice about how to determine what outlets sell Canadian XL Beef.  I think few consumers know about the risks associated with tenderized meat, so thanks for that too!  Teresa Sschwartz

  • Teresa Schwartz

    Thanks for the update and the information about how to find out whether a retailer is selling Canadian XL Beef.  You’ve played an important role in pushing for labeling mechanically tenderized meat.  Let’s hope OMB acts soon.  Teresa