We’ve let the news spoil several holidays and many a Friday night. Christmas 2009 comes to mind, probably because it was the first. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was chasing down a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases just hours before the holiday. We wanted the story. Then, on Christmas Eve, National Steak and Poultry of Owasso, OK, announced the recall of 240,000 pounds of beef for E. coli O157:H7. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and CDC said that cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses did not involve hamburger, but rather blade-tenderized steaks distributed to restaurants. Working through Christmas, Food Safety News reported those steaks was distributed to Moe’s Southwest Grill, Carino’s Italian Grill, and KRM restaurants. Barely into the new year, CDC reported that 19 E. coli illnesses were confirmed in 16 states from what was being called “mechanically tenderized steaks.” National Steak ended up recalling more than 25 different products. The problem was that mechanically tenderized steaks, where a blade or needle is used for tenderizing, can push potentially harmful bacteria to the center of the steaks where it might not be killed by cooking to the proper temperature by restaurants or consumers. Food safety advocates said consumers needed some kind of a warning about mechanically tenderized steaks. And 2010 was only a few day old when they said labeling was needed. The reason was so consumers would make sure to account for the possibility that bacteria might have been pushed into the meat, and they would then thoroughly cook it. mechanical-tenderizer_406x250More than six years later, those labeling requirements will go into effect in May 2016. We’re fortunate because it might well have taken until 2018 or longer. The labels will give consumers notice that the steak has been mechanically tenderized, along with safe cooking instructions. For a time it looked like labels on mechanically tenderized beef would be delayed until the current administration passed into history in January 2017. But with even the industry supporting a label with “validated cooking instructions,” what sense did that make? The fact that the current administration is getting it done may well be the lingering effect of the previous USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. Her departure 18 months ago came after she had proposed labeling mechanically tenderized beef before she resigned. That made it much more difficult for USDA to put it off to the next administration, In addition, the Christmas 2009 outbreak was not the only such incident. At least five other times since 2000, CDC said outbreaks could be blamed on the tenderization process. There was also the XL Foods Inc. recall of beef steaks and roasts that were mechanically tenderized in Canada in 2012. According to USDA estimates, about 18 percent of the beef steaks and roasts sold at retail are mechanically tenderized and, until the labels begin showing up, there is no way to tell. Annual E. coli illnesses from mechanically tenderized beef total between 547 and 4,657, according to FSIS estimates. Labels might reduce that by 133 to 1,497 per year. More than six years is a long time, but it’s better than nine years. The groups with food safety agendas that rallied around this issue last October deserve some credit for making this happen. It was important not to slide back. Besides, when a Grinch steals a Christmas, it’s good to get something back for it.

  • An informed consumer is a good thing and modern labeling technology makes compliance with the new rule easy. I suspect the average consumer of tenderized beef cuts will find value in the rule, but not because they will “account for the possibility that bacteria might have been pushed into the meat, and they would then thoroughly cook it.” If they under cooked these cuts before, they will under cook them in the future. They will find valuable the knowledge that the cut is already tenderized and feel a need to ask the butcher to tenderize the product for them prior to purchase.