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.