USDA finalizes rule on mechanically tenderized beef

by Erica Shaffer
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Proposed labels for mechanically tenderized beef
USDA's suggestions for mechanically tenderized beef labels.

WASHINGTON – Packages of beef that have been mechanically tenderized will bear new labels and cooking instructions, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture reported.

Under the “Descriptive Designation for Needle or Blade-Tenderized (Mechanically Tenderized) Beef Products,” mechanically tenderized beef must bear labels that identify the product as mechanically, blade or needle tenderized. Additionally, the labels must also include validated cooking instructions so that consumers know how to safely prepare them. Cooking instructions must specify the minimum internal temperatures and any hold or “dwell” times for the products to ensure they are fully cooked.

The new labeling requirements become effective in May 2016 or one year from the date of the rule's publication in the Federal Register. FSIS accelerated the effective date because of the public health significance of the change. The rule would have been effective in 2018 if the agency had waited until the next Uniform Compliance Date for Food Labeling Regulations, which is in January 2018.

In comments made in 2013, the American Meat Institute (now known as the North American Meat Institute) said risk assessments completed by FSIS showed little difference in the safety of mechanically tenderized beef products compared to intact beef. The organization also argued that including the term “mechanically tenderized” on packaged beef offered no food-safety benefit and could potentially confuse consumers. While the industry group still believes labeling is unnecessary, the latest iteration of the rule is less burdensome for industry.

“We are confident in the safety of products that are mechanically tenderized to increase tenderness, a trait that consumers desire in meat products,” said Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of NAMI. “Data show that our proactive, food safety efforts have improved these products’ safety profile over the last several years.

“While we don’t believe these products need special labeling, we recognize that this rule is less burdensome than the earlier version and represents a compromise,” Carpenter added. “We will work with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to implement the new labeling requirement in the most effective manner for both industry and consumers.”

FSIS developed the rule because of its significance to public health. The agency said mechanically tenderized beef should be cooked differently than intact cuts because of the potential for pathogens to be introduced into the interior of these products. Mechanically tenderized beef looks no different from other beef products, but consumers should know that they need to handle them differently, FSIS noted.

“Labeling mechanically tenderized beef products and including cooking instructions on the package are important steps in helping consumers to safely prepare these products,” Deputy Under Secretary Al Almanza said. “This common sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses.”

Citing data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FSIS said six outbreaks were attributable to needle or blade tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes. FSIS estimates that 24 percent of consumers who undercook their meat will change their behavior and cook mechanically tenderized beef to a safe temperature, according to the rule. This is equivalent to 210 million illnesses prevented per year.

“FSIS recognizes that not all consumers will change their behavior in response to the presence of the descriptive designation ‘mechanically tenderized,’ ‘needle tenderized’ or ‘blade tenderized,’ and validated cooking instructions on the product label,” the agency noted. “However, FSIS disagrees that the labeling changes will not positively impact public health.”

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