The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has just released its final ruling on the labeling of mechanically tenderized meat products, requiring appropriate labeling and validated cooking instructions. The rule, which has been two years in the making, stipulates that the product names of affected products must contain the designation “mechanically tenderized,” “blade tenderized,” or “needle tenderized.” Additionally, raw products that are to be used for food service or home cooking are required to include instructions stating that mechanically tenderized beef be cooked to a minimum temperature of 145 F with a three-minute resting time. Meat products that are already fully cooked at FSIS-inspected establishments are exempt from this requirement. The expense to processors is estimated to be a one-time cost of about $300 per label.
The ruling is aimed at combating the potential introduction of pathogens into meat products that occurs as a result of mechanical tenderization. During the tenderization process, pathogens from the meat’s surface may be pushed into the meat’s interior. If not fully and properly cooked, the meat can put consumers at risk. While many consumers are fully aware of similar risks associated with undercooked ground meat, they may not know that mechanically tenderized steak needs to be cooked more thoroughly than an intact cut would.
When the rule was first proposed in 2013 as the result of six outbreaks of illness linked to bacterial contamination in mechanically tenderized meat since 2000, an FSIS official stated, “Currently, intact and mechanically tenderized products may have the same product name, so consumers may not know that these products are mechanically tenderized.” According to USDA data, roughly 11 percent — 2.6 billion pounds — of beef products sold in the U.S. have been mechanically tenderized. Deputy Undersecretary Al Almanza contends, “This common sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses.”
Although the labeling change may have large potential benefits, some members of the food industry hold concerns. When the rule was first proposed, then-AMI Executive VP, James Hodges, stated, “Requiring that familiar products like ‘Sirloin Steak’ now be called ‘Mechanically Tenderized Sirloin Steak’ will lead consumers to believe that this product is new or different than those with which they are familiar. We would consider other labeling options that are validated through consumer research and shown to have a potentially meaningful impact on knowledge and behavior.”