The Beef Industry’s Deadly Secret: “Blading” and “Needling”

I love steaks. Rare. So I’m biased. But now there is the report of a year-long investigation by The Kansas City Star into the industry practice of mechanical tenderization. Meat packers take certain cuts and run them through a mechanical tenderizer where dozens of needles or double-edged blades perforate them. The result is a “bladed” or “needled” steak. It’s tenderer, and perceived to be of higher quality, so it can be sold for a higher price. And more profit. The perfect alignment of American values. The process can do something else, however: push potentially deadly E. coli into the core of the steak.

It’s been going on for decades. By 2008, according to a USDA survey, over 90% of the beef producers were blading or needling certain cuts. But nothing on the label said so. Turns out, steak lovers have been deluding themselves into assuming that any E. coli bacteria would remain on the surface and would be killed by the heat.

The US beef industry is a powerful lobby. Packers employ 260,000 people who handle 26 billion pounds of beef a year. After a bout of Wall-Street engineering, beef packers have coagulated into essentially four companies: JBS USA, owned by JBS of Brazil, the largest beef packer in the world; Tyson Foods; Cargill; and National Beef of Kansas City. Together they slaughter 87% of all heifers and steers.

This concentration has allowed the industry to become more efficient, presumably putting downward pressure on prices, though you might not have noticed while under sticker shock at the grocery store.

Though the incidence of E. coli illnesses has declined over the years as industry standards have improved (we hope), they still occur at an alarming rate. The Star writes:

Just this fall, an estimated 2.5 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated meat, including mechanically tenderized cuts, quietly crossed the Canadian border into the United States before it was caught by inspectors.

It triggered a massive recall in Canada, where 17 people fell sick, five of whom had eaten mechanically tenderized steaks. But in the US, the beef wasn’t recalled. Instead, the FDA issued a “Public Health Alert,” and the beef ended up on the shelves.

Mechanically tenderized steaks are two to four times riskier than regular steaks, according to a study cited by The Star. Risks that have been known “for quite some time,” said Carlota Medus, principal epidemiologist at Minnesota’s health department. Mechanically tenderized steaks have been identified “as a vehicle for outbreaks since 2003,” she said. “It’s not as risky as ground beef, but it is definitely riskier than an intact steak.”

After the article appeared in The Star, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York and member of the Agriculture Committee, sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, which is currently pouring over a new labeling rule that the USDA wants to implement.

The USDA has been on this case for years and has pressured the industry to label “bladed” or “needled” beef voluntarily, but few packers complied. Costco is among the stores that labels their beef appropriately, along with a warning: “for your safety USDA recommends cooking to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.”

Sen. Gillibrand wrote that consumers were “largely unaware” of this risk and did not “routinely cook beef cuts such as steaks well enough to eliminate such pathogens.” She asked that the agency make “every effort to expedite the release of this proposed labeling rule in order to inform consumers about potential and serious risks of food-borne illness.”

Steak lovers should know if the meat has been mechanically tenderized. It would allow them to make a logical decision: eat steak overcooked and be safe, or knowingly take the risk of eating something delicious that might be deadly. A basic risk-reward calculation. We make those decisions routinely. Yet, worried that the truth would lead to confusion and reluctance, hence a drop in sales, the industry fiercely resists labeling. It has done so with hormones and antibiotics as well. Under the motto that it’s always better to keep consumers in the dark.

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  3 comments for “The Beef Industry’s Deadly Secret: “Blading” and “Needling”

  1. Wolf Richter
    December 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    RIk – Agreed, chicken is much, much worse. But everybody knows it. So we handle it with care. We wash our hands and clean utensils carefully after handling raw chicken, and we cook chicken to death. But a well-done steak to me just isn't edible. In my case, I might have to abandon eating steak (I already eat a lot less than I used to). And that is what the industry is afraid of: lower sales. It's a powerful lobby, and I doubt that labeling rules will make it through the process.

  2. cool river
    December 15, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I regularly eat raw steak, ground to hamburger beef. I prefer a simplified steak tartar with just chopped herbs, salt and pepper.

    That is, I regularly eat steak tartar in Finland and never in California. While in California I eat a lot of sushi, which is consistently fresh and tasty. But back in Finland I inspect suspiciously the fresh fish on offer.

    I've often thought that as a Finnish customer I would be willing to pay double for a fish that still swims in a tank when I purchase it, if the fishmonger would clean it in the store under my watch.

    I have suggested the fish tank idea to a couple of Finnish fish mongers and the response is always an incongruous laughter. No-o! No-o, even when it is quite usual that the fish on a fish counter has died 5 days before the customer has an opportunity to buy it. No-o, even if the fish is farmed and has spent its whole life in a tank. Oh, no.

    Several years ago a wet market fisher got sued for selling small Baltic herrings that still kicked in the sales bin. The Finnish regulation degrees that after fish is lifted from the water the fish should be killed immediately and without any undue pain to the fish. So all the little herrings, fished using a drag net, should have all been mercifully killed long before they reached the local wet market. Instead, the fisher had probably dumped the herrings from the net directly into the bins lined with crushed ice and hurried to the wet market.

    The court case got news coverage in the humor section. The fisher testified that he thought he had killed each fish but obviously had accidentally overlooked some. No penalty was issued. After the incident the regulation has not been eagerly enforced. But fish on the fresh fish counter remain not-that-fresh and nobody seems willing to test the officials' interpretation of the regulation concerning fish tanks, nor the public sentiment towards choosing the dinner among live fish from the tank.

    To paraphrase Tolstoy, each market is unhappily regulated in its own, particular way.

  3. Rik
    December 16, 2012 at 7:54 am

    @Wolf
    The problem is as far as I can see it twofold:
    if the production is mass the tenderising equipment like with meat loaf or burgers 'touches' all pieces. Plus it not only touches the outside but also the inside of the piece of meat. The mass productionprocess takes care that if one piece/cow has a problem it is spread over all stuff. Grinding or needling takes care that the pathogenes end up in the centre of the burger, steak or whatever.
    As far as I can see it it is mainly the lower qualities, tougher steaks they do it with. Simply avoid those Japanese like in cool river's example also use the best parts for sushi. That is with a reason and the reason is not only taste.

    Another one if you get more industrial processed foods they simply like to use all sorts of basically unnatural methods mainly to make a profit. Hormones and anti-biotics (porcessing left overs to use them another) for instance. Hormones allthough not in favour personally providing it are small dosis and the same stuff the animal has naturally and last injected a decent period before slaughter looks sot of ok. Only the taste suffers and I donot like the idea and there is always a chance that something goes wrong. But long term effects of anti-biotics look pretty dodgy to me. We simply donot know enough and there are clear indications that some bacteria get imune from it.
    Looks like Europe has that better under control than the US. Especially Germany most butchers show the farms where the animals come from, small scale slaughter.

    Few foods are better than a good steak, they should not spoil that pleasure. A good steak is one of the basic human rights as far as I am concerned. And overcooked is as you say unedible and anyway we are civilised people no Texans.

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