After months of wrangling over whether mechanically tenderized beef posed a food-safety problem, and more months fighting over labeling rules, its’ all done and everyone’s happy.
USDA official announced this week that labeling will be required on packages of mechanically tenderized beef, beginning in May 2016. The rationale is that mechanical tenderization, either with needles or blades, can transfer pathogens such as E. coli O57:H7 or salmonella from the surface of whole-muscle cuts to the inside
Of course, since most consumers don’t typically cook steaks and roasts to a well-done state, the center of those cuts often isn’t fully cooked and when consumed, can pose a food-safety threat.
The labels will state that the meat has been “Mechanically Tenderized,” “Blade Tenderized” or “Needle Tenderized.” The packages will also include cooking instructions to ensure that consumers cook the products long enough to destroy any bacteria.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that there have been six outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to mechanically tenderized beef over the last 15 years, and USDA predicted that the new labels and cooking instructions could prevent hundreds of illnesses annually.
“This common-sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses,” Al Almanza, the administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said in a statement.
Okay, that’s what any USDA official has to say: This is a prudent adoption of a tactic that will add yet another layer of safety to an already safe product.
We’ve heard variation on that theme literally dozens of times over the past few decades. It’s both government and industry’s go-to tune.
Fact is, the meat industry has invested an enormous amount of time, effort and research funds to develop beef carcass interventions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to develop, test and commercialize antimicrobial technologies. The improvement in USDA’s baseline data on the prevalence of potential pathogens on raw meat and poultry products confirms that the investment is paying dividends.
Alongside of that industry-wide initiative, however, leading trade groups argued that labeling for whole-muscle products wasn’t necessary, that the threat was minimal, even as a number of consumer groups and their congressional allies loudly demanded that the health of the American public was in jeopardy.
Harmony all around
Here’s what’s amazing about this entire situation: It all worked out to the satisfaction of all concerned. Like a grade-school karate tournament, everyone’s a winner.
For the industry, an outreach to USDA resulted in a collaborative effort to craft realistic rules, and as the North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter told the Associated Press, USDA “worked with the industry” on rulemaking for nearly two year, and that the beef industry will work with USDA officials to put the rules in place.
“We are confident in the safety of products that are mechanically tenderized to increase tenderness, a trait that consumers desire in meat products,” Carpenter said.
(See what I mean about singing the same song?)
Even the very consumer groups that had vilified the industry for not launching a voluntary labeling program for mechanically tenderized cuts actually praised the new USDA regulation, but in doing so talked less about the “dangers” to consumers and more about the reality that people can’t tell whether the meat was tenderized or not.
(Hint: If the menu you’re reading says “Ponderosa,” “Sizzler” or “Golden Corral,” your steak’s been tenderized).
A statement released by a coalition of organizations, including Consumers Union, National Consumers League, CSPI and the Consumer Federation of America, stated that “USDA’s new rule will protect consumers from foodborne illness by providing them with accurate information about whether the steak they are buying has been mechanically tenderized ad how to safely prepare it. We are grateful to Secretary Vilsack and USDA for their efforts to finalize this important consumer protection rule.”
Even congressional critics such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a longtime agitator for tougher food-safety rules, “applauded the rule,” according to an AP report.
It’s all so cheery and upbeat, I can hear the strains of “Kumbaya” echoing between the paragraphs.
Isn’t it nice when everyone can find some good in the regulations?
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator