The practice of mechanically tenderizing meat has been widespread in the meat-processing industry for years. But the practice has come under scrutiny after several product recalls and foodborne illnesses were linked to the technology. Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to mechanically tenderized meat has prompted federal food-safety agencies in the United States and Canada to reconsider how such products are labeled.

In early June, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service submitted proposed labeling requirements that include spelling out validated cooking methods, minimum internal temperature and resting time for mechanically tenderized beef. Additionally, labels on mechanically tenderized beef products would require product names to include the words “mechanically tenderized” as a descriptive designation on the label.

“Ensuring consumers have effective tools and information is important in helping them to protect their families against foodborne illness,” Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen explains. “This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically tenderized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions so that consumers and restaurants can safely prepare these products.”

The proposal includes a cost-benefit analysis that led FSIS officials to categorize costs associated with the labeling changes as “fairly low.” FSIS estimates a one-time cost of $310 per label. The aggregate cost for the industry is estimated to be $1.05 million, which would be annualized at $140,000 per year. If the agency is able to propose a final rule by the end of 2014, Jan. 1, 2016 would be the compliance date with the requirements.

OIG observations

Lending support for label changes is a report from the Office of the Inspector General, which states that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) needs to re-evaluate its E. coli testing procedures for mechanically tenderized beef products. FSIS does not sample tenderized meat products for E. coli, although tenderized meat products were involved in several recent recalls. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked six foodborne disease outbreaks to needle- or blade-tenderized beef products since 2000. Of those, undercooked product was the leading cause of the illnesses.

A case for change in Canada

What began as a public health alert regarding beef processed by XL Foods Inc. in Alberta, Canada became the largest beef recall in Canadian history. Beef contaminated with E. coli sickened 18 people and prompted the recall of more than 1,800 products. One of the alleged culprits in the event was mechanically tenderized beef. Beef steaks sold at a Costco Wholesale store in Edmonton, Alberta, were linked to several confirmed E. coli infections. But at that time, CFIA agents were unable to establish if the steaks were contaminated before or after arriving at the store. In September 2012, provincial health officials asked Costco to stop using meat tenderizing machines because the technique increases the risk of illnesses.

In a review of the XL Foods recall and possible circumstances leading up to it, industry estimates of losses stemming from the recall fell between $16 million and $27 million. XL Foods accounted for 35 percent of Canada’s beef-processing capacity. Sáo Paulo, Brazil-based JBS SA bought out XL Foods in 2012.

The recall and subsequent E. coli infections reported to federal food-safety authorities led food-safety officials in Canada to announce in May that registered plants there producing mechanically tenderized beef will be required to label products as tenderized and provide cooking instructions to ensure consumers stay protected against foodborne illness. Health Canada, a federal agency that promotes health and wellness, also proposed broader mandatory labels to identify mechanically tenderized beef at retail outlets such as supermarkets. The requirement is part of a larger federal initiative called Safe Food for Canadians Action Plan. Voluntary labeling practices had been established in 2012.

Consumer demand for labels

In light of the recalls and illnesses, consumer and public health groups in the US are urging USDA to immediately approve labels for mechanically tenderized beef products.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack , the Safe Food Coalition says labeling mechanically tenderized beef products will help consumers make an informed decision about food purchases and steps they should take to safely handle or prepare items such as mechanically tenderized beef.

“As you know, mechanically tenderized products [such as steaks and roasts] have been treated with a process that repeatedly inserts small needles or blades into the product,” the letter states. “These needles or blades pierce the surface of the product increasing the risk that any pathogens located on the surface of the product can be transferred to the interior.

“Consumers need to be provided with labeling information so that they can make appropriate selections and take the necessary steps in handling and cooking these products,” the letter continued.

The Safe Food Coalition advocates labels on mechanically tenderized beef products. The group has held this position since December 2009 when an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 sickened more than 21 people across 16 states. Mechanically tenderized steaks from were identified as the source of the outbreak, and approximately 248,000 lbs. of the product were recalled.

In Canada, the CFIA is asking consumers to get involved in a dialogue about the country’s food-labeling system. The agency is consulting with consumers, industry and other stakeholders to identify ways to better address changing consumer expectations and industry needs related to food labeling. CFIA’s label review will address how the agency can provide the best information so that consumers can make informed choices. The agency also plans to explore changes need to enable industry to effectively market their products and communicate with consumers through food labels.

The current food-labeling initiative focuses on imported, domestic, retail, consumer packaged or bulk and further-processed food products.