November 18, 2014

Consumer advocacy and food safety groups are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finalize a labeling rule that has been in progress since 2008.

The rule would require meat processors to label cuts of beef that were mechanically tenderized. In order to be implemented in January 2016, the law needs to be approved by the end of this year. If not, it would go into the next labeling cycle, pushing the next implementation date to 2018.

Members of the Safe Food Coalition urged USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to finalize the rule so that it could be passed on to the Office of Management and Budget for final approval.

Mechanically tenderized meat has been repeatedly pierced by small needles or blades, increasing the risk of pathogens located on the surface of the product to be transferred to the interior, says the group.

"After treatment, these non-intact steaks and roasts have a greater risk of being internally contaminated, yet they look no different than non-treated product," said a letter addressed to Vilsack. "Therefore, without a label, consumers have no indication that they are purchasing a high-risk product that needs to be cooked to a higher internal temperature to ensure pathogenic lethality."

Canada implemented a similar labeling rule this year after a 2012 recall of mechanically tenderized beef. A follow-up report found a five-fold increase in risk from E. coli when compared to intact cuts of beef.

In its own 2008 report the USDA found that 88 percent of the producers that use mechanical tenderization did not use any pathogen-reducing intervention prior to treatment and 82 percent of those facilities did not test the finished product.

Most of the of these operations listed three to six sources for their products, yet only 3 percent of facilities cleaned and sanitized their equipment between batches of beef from different sources, instead opting to clean and sanitize daily at the end of production.

Editor's Note: North Carolina Consumers Council is a member of the Consumer Federation of America, which is part of the Safe Food Coalition.