Many consumers are unaware that some of the meat that ends up on our plates has been mechanically tenderized, a process in which the beef is pierced by blades or needles. The practice may drive any bacteria present on the surface deeper inside, where it's tougher to kill through cooking.
You'd think that would be something consumers had a need to know, but the federal government continues to drag its heels on a labeling requirement. Such disclosure would let grillers and chefs know that certain cuts might need more time on the fire.
Nor do federal inspectors test steaks and other mechanically tenderized beef cuts for dangerous strains of E. coli.
A recent federal audit says the lack of such inspections continues, "even though these products present some additional risk for E. coli contamination." The issue of mechanically tenderized beef was highlighted late last year in a Kansas City Star investigation that told of meat recalls involving such products, and that profiled several people who were been poisoned by tainted, mechanically tenderized steaks ordered at restaurants. One victim was Margaret Lamkin of Sioux City, Iowa, who must now wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
The federal audit was conducted by the USDA's inspector general. In it, USDA's meat inspection officials were quoted as saying they viewed mechanically tenderized meat "at a low level of risk for E. coli, and did not see the need for testing." But the auditors disagreed. They said their own studies found a "significant risk."
As for the labeling issue, The Kansas City Star reported that USDA officials themselves pushed for such a move several years ago and their efforts were joined by consumer advocates. It's not entirely clear why the process has bogged down. Consumer advocates and some members of Congress blame the Office of Management and Budget for stalling, but the inspector general's audit suggests that agency may be awaiting further data from USDA.
The Star's investigation found that the beef industry has made strides in quality and safety, while boosting the safety record of its larger plants. Even so, the need for improvement in food safety seems obvious. Consumers should know if the meat they plan to consume has been mechanically tenderized -- and inspectors should be testing it for contamination.
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