Why Should I Care If The Beef I Buy Has Been Mechanically Tenderized?

Whether you actually read the labels on food or not, they exist to inform consumers of exactly what they’re about to eat. But that isn’t much help if you don’t understand why something is labeled a certain way in the first place. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture is planning on requiring beef that’s been mechanically tenderized to be labeled as such. Okay, great! But why should you care either way?

The USDA is proposing that mechanically tenderized meat — 26% of all beef sold in the nation — be labeled as such, over food-safety concerns. See, while tenderizing meat can result in a delicious eating experience, the process of forcing hundreds of tiny sharp points into it can also force bad things like E. coli deep inside the meat, where the heat of cooking doesn’t always kill it, explains USA Today.

Under the USDA’s proposal, not only would the label inform customers that they’re buying a product with the potential to carry a foodborne pathogen, it would also include instructions on how to properly cook it to avoid ingesting dangerous substances. Intact cuts like steak are usually safe after cooking just the outside of the meat, but bacteria can be folded into beef when it’s ground or otherwise cut up and reformed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there have been five such E. coli outbreaks that were linked to mechanically tenderized beef, sickening 174 people and killing four one. [Note: The CDC released revised statistics after this post was written]

And since you can’t use the ol’ eyeball test to detect whether or not meat has been mechanically tenderized, the USDA sees this new label requirement as quite necessary.

“When people buy cube steak, you see the marks where the machinery has cubed up the steak,” said USDA Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen. “When people buy ground beef, they know they’re getting ground product. But when people order this product, they don’t know. And certainly, when people are ordering in a restaurant, they don’t know they’re ordering this product.”

Some stores already note this on product labels — at Costco, labels read “blade tenderized” on beef that’s undergone such a process. The new rules, announced today, would require all such products to be labeled as such. They’ll also include a note that they should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees, and allowed to sit for three minutes after it’s taken off the heat.

Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said  of the decision: “We have been calling for a label for mechanically tenderized meat for years because consumers deserve to know what they’re putting in their carts and on their tables. Putting a label on mechanically tenderized meat that also includes cooking instructions is a common sense step that will help protect consumers and their families from unnecessary and often serious illness.”

Has your steak been mechanically tenderized? [Consumer Reports]

USDA to require labels for mechanically tenderized meat [USA Today]