This summer and grilling season – which unofficially kicks off in less than two weeks with Memorial Day weekend – American shoppers will see an important new label on some steak packages. Beginning May 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service started requiring meat processors to disclose a common practice known as mechanical tenderization and provide safe cooking instructions so their customers know to handle these products carefully.
Product tenderness is a key selling point for beef products. To increase tenderness, some cuts of beef are tenderized mechanically by piercing them with needles or small blades in order to break up tissue. This process takes place before the beef is packaged but can also occur at the grocery store’s butcher counter, at a restaurant, or in the home. The blades or needles can introduce pathogens from the surface of the beef to the interior, making proper cooking very important. However, mechanically tenderized products look no different than product that has not been treated this way, so without disclosure on the label, consumers may not know about this higher food safety risk.
These products, like all whole cuts of beef, should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes after it has been removed from the heat source before carving or consuming. During this rest time, the internal temperature is either constant or slightly rises to destroy pathogens.
Since 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of six outbreaks attributable to mechanically tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes. Some cases resulted in hospitalization and hemolytic uremic syndrome. Undercooking these products was a significant contributing factor in all of these cases.
Beginning this week, home cooks, restaurants, and other food service facilities will now have more information about the products they are buying, as well as useful cooking instructions so they know how to safely prepare them.
This new requirement is the latest of several measures the Food Safety and Inspection Service has implemented over the past several years to improve the safety of meat and poultry products, and to give consumers more information about the products they are buying. In 2012, USDA began enforcing a zero tolerance policy for raw beef products containing six strains of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, giving products that test positive for these six pathogens the same illegal and unsafe status USDA has long given products testing positive for E. coli O157:H7. Last summer, FSIS implemented new recordkeeping requirements for retailers that will greatly improve the agency to track products involved in foodborne illness outbreaks back to their source. More information on this work can be found at USDA’s Food Safety results page.
Using the four food safety steps—Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill—every time will help to keep you and your family safe from foodborne illness. And if you have any food safety questions, you can call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.