The Foster Farms salmonella outbreak this month has underscored the importance of cooking and handling poultry properly. Now attention is turning to beef because of a little-known practice called mechanical tenderization.
To soften a cheaper grade of beef, producers machine-puncture meat with a row of needles or blades that break up tough muscle fibers. The punctures are too small to recognize with the naked eye.
While the process can tenderize the toughest cuts, it raises the risk of food-borne illness because it can potentially deliver bacteria deep into the center of the beef where it's harder to cook off.
Since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported five outbreaks of potentially fatal E. coli 0157:57 due to mechanically tenderized beef.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed rules earlier this year to force producers to label and identify beef as mechanically tenderized as well as include instructions to cook the product to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last week, Consumer Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine, called for even stricter rules. Among them: nationally uniform labeling for the product and instructions to cook the meat well-done to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The potential risk of mechanically tenderized beef is clear, but when you're shopping today or for your end-of-year holiday festive meals, you can't tell by looking at a piece of meat whether it's been mechanically tenderized," the organization said last week. "Consumers Union... thinks this beef needs a label that tells you what you're buying and how to cook it."
The American Meat Institute, an industry trade association, opposes the labeling, explaining it will confuse consumers.
"Conveying the fact that a product has been subject to mechanical tenderization and therefore consumers should prepare the product differently than if it is intact can be accomplished just as easily through means other than requiring that term's inclusion in the product name," the group said.