On Christmas Eve the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Recall 248,000 “beef products” from Oklahoma-based National Steak and Poultry. The recall was issued because the mechanically tenderized, non-intact steaks, were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and therefore, like hamburger contaminated with the same pathogen, considered adulterated by FSIS. The recall also came with this warning:

FSIS became aware of the problem during the course of an investigation of a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses. Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health and agriculture departments, FSIS determined that there is an association between non-intact steaks (mechanically tenderized prior to further processing) and illnesses in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington

However, over the weekend I learned that USDA Secretary Vilsack was warned in June 2009 (FSIS was well aware of the risk before as well) of the exact risk of “non-intact steaks (mechanically tenderized prior to further processing),” by a coalition of Food Safety Advocates. In a letter dated June 12, The Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Consumer Federation of America, and Food & Water Watch warned Secretary Vilsack:

In recent years, several outbreaks and illnesses have been associated with mechanically tenderized meat products. These products, such as steaks and roasts, have been tenderized through a process that repeatedly inserts small needles or blades into the product. These needles or blades pierce the surface of the product increasing the risk that any pathogens located on the surface of the product can be transferred to the interior of the product.

The Coalition also cited Journal articles and FSIS’s own documents (see backgrounder) outlining the scope of the use of mechanically tenderized product:

According to the 2008 FSIS Checklist Report, over 50 million pounds of mechanically tenderized beef products are produced each month. Most of these products have been mechanically tenderized through a process that repeatedly inserts small needles or blades into the product, generally with product being exposed to 2-3 passes. A 2008 Journal of Food Protection article by Luchansky et al., reported that a 2003 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association survey found that 188 of 200 processors (94%) use mechanical tenderization to improve product quality.

Several studies [as recently as 2009] have been undertaken to determine if the mechanical tenderization process transfers pathogens from the surface to the interior of beef products. A study by Luchansky et al., found that, depending on the level of surface contamination, mechanical tenderization of beef products transferred E. coli O157:H7 into the topmost 1 cm of product in 90% to 100% of samples and into the topmost 2 cm of product in 55% to 98% of samples.

The Coalition warned that presently the FSIS does not require mechanically tenderized (non-intact) meat products to be identified. Therefore, consumers and retail outlets, such as restaurants, do not know whether the products they have purchased are intact or mechanically tenderized or not.

In addition, FSIS’ current advice to consumers and retail outlets about cooking temperatures for products, such as steaks and roasts, does not differentiate between intact products and non-intact products. As a result, consumers and retail outlets do not have sufficient information to assure that these products are cooked to an appropriate and safe temperature.

The Safe Food Coalition outlined these recommendations (among others) to the FSIS:

• Issue a press release as soon as possible indicating that the current cooking guidelines and temperatures for intact beef products are not safe for all beef products that look intact. [Specifically, that mechanically tenderized steaks should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, just like hamburger.]

• Take immediate steps to develop regulation that will require labeling to clearly identify mechanically tenderized, non-intact beef and pork products for all processing facilities, retail purchasers and consumers.

• Initiate a FSIS program to assess the effectiveness of public health messaging, so that effective food safety messages can be delivered to all food safety stakeholders.

I bet Secretary Vilsack wished he had responded to the letter with action, or had at least told his undersecretary at FSIS (wait, he does not have one) to get on the problem pronto.  See also these posts:

People in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington got "E. coli" in their Stockings for Christmas – Why does the FSIS, CDC and National Steak and Poultry not tell us which Restaurants received the Needle Tenderized Products?

There is a long, too long, history of E. coli O157:H7-tainted needle tenderized steaks

My Steak has been needle or blade penetrated or hammered – Really? What about E. coli?

  • DSmith

    Dear Mr. Marler,
    I think it is time we mandated irradiation of all comminuted, ground, and otherwise mechanically altered meats produced in very large lots. The argument that this would lead to us eating sterilized bovine feces (“zapping the crap”) is a red herring. No matter how cautious and meticulous slaughter house employees are, there will always be some level of contamination on the kill floor. With EC O157:H7, specks of dust would be sufficient to seed a carcass with sufficient pathogens to kill a child.
    Kenneth Petersen was recently excoriated for his statement about needing to consider both public health and the health of businesses, but the reality is that we constantly balance safety and cost. Irradiation can provide a tremendous improvement in public safety at a reasonable cost. We are foolish not to take advantage of it. As for what lot size should trigger mandatory irradiation, I’m not sure, but it should be big enough so that small establishments are are not forced into it. These small operations are vital to many farm communities and are already struggling to comply with current regulations.

  • Guess my time line from 2002 to 2009 was too long.
    A one sentence summary could be:
    “Cook the mechanically tenderized thoroughly and all is safe, besides there are insufficient bodies for FSIS to take action.� Sounds like 1989-1993 and ground beef.
    The time line included quotes from reports by NACMCF, the HACCP Alliance, National Cattlemen’s.
    FDA 2003 “The whole issue of whether meats are injected or pinned gives us great heartburn because we can’t tell from the label (or lack thereof) what process, if any, has been applied to the meat.”
    FSIS’ upper management July 2003:”the Department will not support us regarding rulemaking or stronger public health messages (for the non-marinated product).”

  • John Munsell

    First of all, the come has come for irradiation, even the low dose/low penetration type. Appropriate labeling must be used, to enable consumers to purchase the safer type of products if desired. The product mentioned to above which sometimes experiences “three passes” is known as a cube steak, also called a chicken fry and a number of other names. Restaurants know which items are cube steaks, and can adjust cooking times accordingly. Many household consumers do not know the processing background of cube steaks, and would benefit from labeling and consumer education. D Smith’s comment above refers to small plants which are already struggling. The most important thing about small slaughter establishments is that their snail-paced kill floors allow employees and inspectors to visually detect and remove visible pathogens, and hand spraying carcasses with water is much more thorough and effective at the small plants than the automated systems at the fast-paced large facilities. At the NMA annual convention in 2004 ? a packer related how a pipe in their automated water spraying cabinet was cracked, manure got into the crack, and as a result, pathogens were being sprayed onto all subsequent carcasses. Even the most sophistocated kill floor interventions have problems. So, I don’t argue that irradiation should not be mandated at small plants because the plants are already struggling, but because the slow speed at small plants effectively removes bacteria on their kill floor. These small plants do NOT have the systemic pathogen problems inherent in the large, fast-speed slaughter behemoths. John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    An existing USDA/FSIS policy exacerbates the E.coli problem for public health. The agency allows slaughter plants to ship into commerce INTACT meat cuts which are surface-contaminated with E.coli. When downstream facilities either pin (needle) or cube the intact cuts, the invisible exterior pathogens are then transferred into the interior of the meat. Once the E.coli are INSIDE the meat, the agency then declares these previously harmless bacteria to be adulterants, and accuses the further processing facility of being noncompliant with meat inspection requirements. And, USDA refuses to go back to the source of contamination (the slaughter plant) to require changes, which means that no corrective actions are accomplished at the source. This virtually guarantees ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls. Sound familiar? The very fact that USDA allows slaughter facilities to ship into commerce meat that is surface-contaminated with E.coli, and labeled with the official USDA Mark of Inspection, reveals the agency’s “relationship” with the big packers, and the agency’s lack of commitment to public health. Furthermore, the current administration has yet to name a USDA Undersecretary for its Food Safety Inspection Service, which seems to indicate that even the White House is perfectly content to maintain the failed status quo, and lacks the courage to challenge the biggest packers. John Munsell

  • Bix

    John … been enjoying your comments. Very informative.
    (I tweeted the Pres @BarackObama to name a FSIS chief. I would love him to get tens of thousands of similar tweets.)