Long-planned efforts to place a label on mechanically tenderized beef may be delayed another two years — until 2018 — if they are not finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by the end of this year. For more than a decade, consumer groups and the U.S. federal government have been discussing the food safety concerns surrounding mechanically tenderized beef — steaks or other whole cuts that have been mechanically punctured with needles or knives to make them more tender for consumers. In the U.S., roughly one-quarter of whole beef cuts are mechanically tenderized. Mechanical tenderization of beef poses health risks because it transfers potential pathogens from the surface of the meat down into the center. If the cuts are cooked rare or not thoroughly enough, the pathogens in the center may go on to sicken the consumer. A number of foodborne illness outbreaks have been connected to mechanically tenderized beef in recent years, including the 2012 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Canada from XL Foods, which resulted in the largest beef recall in Canadian history. According to USA Today, at least five outbreaks in the U.S. have recently been attributed to mechanically tenderized beef, resulting in 174 confirmed illnesses and four deaths. The problem with tenderized beef is that without a label, it’s impossible to tell whether or not a cut of meat has been tenderized, said Patricia Buck, executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI). Anyone who might want to take extra precautions to avoid E. coli or other pathogens in their steak has no way to identify the additional risk without a label. That’s especially concerning for children, the elderly, or any other consumers with weaker immune systems, Buck said. In a federal register notice from June 2013, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) estimated that E. coli illnesses from mechanically tenderized beef ranged between 587 and 4,657 each year. Labeling that beef could prevent an estimated 133 to 1,497 of those illnesses, the agency said, which would translate into roughly $1.5 million in economic benefits from avoided illnesses each year. “When we’re trying to reduce the prevalence of foodborne illness, labeling mechanically tenderized beef is one quick fix that has an actual impact,” Buck said. Following a push from the CFI and other consumer groups, in 2013 the USDA announced that it would require labeling of mechanically tenderized beef. The rule, however, still has not been finalized, and it needs to be done by the end of 2014 in order to be implemented in 2016. New labeling laws are implemented in two-year increments. Any new label rule made in 2013 or 2014 will be implemented Jan. 1, 2016. If the mechanically tenderized beef label isn’t finalized until 2015, the label won’t make it to beef packages until 2018, nearly 20 years after consumer groups first brought up food safety concerns over the practice of mechanical tenderization. The final rule has been drafted by the FSIS, and passed on to the USDA for departmental clearance. It’s still at that departmental review stage, waiting to be sent to the White House OMB for final approval. In an email to Food Safety News, a spokesman for the USDA said that they anticipate sending it to OMB soon. A coalition of consumer groups last met with the USDA in mid-October to discuss getting the label finalized before the end of the year. Now that a month has passed and the groups haven’t heard of any progress, they’re getting more worried that the rule won’t be finished in time, said Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). The CFI, the CFA and a number of other organizations are drafting a letter to the USDA to be sent Monday that will urge the agency to push through the rule before it’s delayed another two years. In August 2014, Canada became the first country to require labeling of mechanically tenderized beef. In May 2013, a Health Canada risk assessment found steaks that had been mechanically tenderized to pose fives times greater risk to consumer compared to intact steak. Ideally, Buck said, the label would include three pieces of information beyond informing the consumer that the beef was mechanically tenderized:

  1. It must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees F or cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F with a 3 minute rest time.
  2. The beef needs to be turned twice during cooking.
  3. If it’s frozen, it needs to be completely thawed before cooking.

“Without these instructions clearly written right on the package, these products can continue to sicken people, especially in the vulnerable age groups,” Buck said. “This is really, really important.” Image of beef undergoing mechanical tenderization courtesy of Consumer Reports.