Beef in E. Coli Recall Was Mechanically Tenderized

A Christmas Eve recall of 248,000 pounds of beef linked to an E. coli outbreak in 16 states has focused new attention on an industrial method used to tenderize tough beef and pork.

VIDEO: E. Coli outbreak in ground beef.
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Oklahoma-based National Steak and Poultry recalled boneless steaks, bacon-wrapped beef fillets, steak tips and skirt steaks. The Department of Agriculture says the meats are suspected in 21 cases of illness from E. coli O157:H7. No victims died, but several were hospitalized.

The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a link between eating these blade-tenderized steaks and several cases of the illness.

Mechanical tenderization, or "needling," is done on tougher cuts such as strip and T-bone steaks, as well as sirloin, loin and rib steaks, says the American Meat Institute's Scott Goltry.

It involves poking hundreds of thin needles into a large piece of meat to mechanically break down muscle fibers. It is impossible to see the channels made by the needles after the steaks have been cut, Goltry says. With pork, the needles often are used to inject a marinade. In beef, no liquid is generally added.

This type of treated beef is typically sold to restaurants, not supermarkets, Goltry says.

Process of Mechanical Tenderization

The process raises the risk that E. coli bacteria on the surface of the steak might be transferred to its interior, where cooking would be less likely to kill them. The Safe Food Coalition of consumer groups warned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the dangers of the practice in June. Because these products are not required to be labeled, there's slim chance consumers or restaurants would know whether their steak was tenderized using this technique and therefore must be cooked to at least 140 degrees.

If consumers know their steaks have been treated this way, they shouldn't eat them rare, warns Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.

The USDA reports that in 2008 more than 50 million pounds of mechanically tenderized meat was produced each month.

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