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?