Beef that's been "mechanically tenderized" is at higher risk of contamination.
Your beef just got a little safer, thanks to new labeling requirements by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that went into effect this month.
The new rules require that mechanically tenderized beef be labeled as such, and include instructions on the packaging for safe preparation.
So, what is mechanical tenderizing, exactly? Chances are, in the past, you probably would have never known if your beef (store-bought or otherwise) was prepared in this way.
Mechanical tenderizing is a process that involves repeatedly puncturing meat with blades or needles to break down the fibers in the cut, and make it eaiser to chew. The punctures are so small they're invisible to the eye.
While mechanical tenderizing makes for a tastier steak, it creates a problem, says David P. Goldman, MD, assistant administrator for the Office of Public Health Science at FSIS: When the blades or needles poke through the surface of the meat, there's potential for pathogens—such as E.coli—to be introduced to the interior of the cut, where they are harder to cook off.
Bacteria have greater odds of survival inside the meat. That's why it's so important for the public to be aware of safe preparation techniques for mechanically tenderized beef, says Dr. Goldman. The USDA recommends that these beef products be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (as measured by a food thermometer), and that the beef be left to rest for at least three minutes after it's removed from the heat source. During this period of time, the temperature inside the cut should either remain constant or rise further to destroy any pathogens.
Since 2000, there have been six reported outbreaks of foodborne illnesses that were attributable to needle or blade-tenderized beef products. The outbreaks included many cases of E.coli that resulted in 32 hospitalizations and four cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to life-threatening kidney failure.
"The new labeling regulations will inform consumers so they can protect themselves in a way that they have not been able to in the past," says Dr. Goldman. "It is a preventative measure to avoid any future outbreaks due to mechanically tenderized beef."