WASHINGTON – Food-safety groups are urging the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to finalize a label for mechanically tenderized (MT) beef.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack dated Nov. 17, the Safe Food Coalition expressed concern over the agency's delay in finalizing a rule. The comment period for a proposed rule closed on Oct. 8, 2013, the group said, but it still needs final approval from USDA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

"If those approvals are not obtained before Dec. 31, 2014, then implementation will be delayed an additional two years due to FSIS’ requirements on uniform compliance dates for meat and poultry labeling," the coalition wrote. "In other words, USDA’s delays could mean that a proactive and preventive label, designed to protect public health, would not be implemented for two additional years, during which time thousands of consumers could become sickened from contaminated mechanically tenderized beef products."

In June 2013, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) submitted proposed labeling requirements that included 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.

In comments to FSIS in 2013, the American Meat Institute (AMI) recommended withdrawing the proposed requirements citing consumer confusion and the food safety track record of mechanically tenderized beef cuts.

“It is telling that there has not been a single foodborne illness outbreak in the US attributable to MT beef cuts in almost four years," AMI noted. "That fact is directly related to the significant shift by the affected industry to more aggressively utilize a variety of effective interventions and processing practices when producing MT products.”

The US is not alone in facing this issue. Federal lawmakers in Canada passed legislation mandating labels on mechanically tenderized beef. All mechanically tenderized beef products must be clearly labeled and include instructions for safe cooking. Labels on mechanically tenderized beef became mandatory following an outbreak ofE. coliand a subsequent recall of 1,800 beef products, the largest beef recall in Canada's history.