Tuesday, December 11, 2012

K.C. Star looks into mechanical beef-tenderization process that increases risk of E. coli infection

In a yearlong investigation, Mike McGraw of The Kansas City Star discovered that the beef industry relies on a mechanical process to tenderize a lot of its meat, and that the process exposes unwary consumers to higher risk of infection from E. coli bacteria.

The industry doesn't want to label mechanically tenderized meat with cooking instructions, leaving consumers in the dark about that risk, McGraw reports: "The result: Beef in America is plentiful and affordable, spun out in enormous quantities at high speeds, but it's a bonanza with hidden dangers. Industry officials contend beef is safer than it's ever been," the Star reports. (Star photo by Keith Myers: Workers at Tyson Fresh Meats plant, Dakota City, Neb.)

The Star investigated the four largest beef packers in the U.S.: Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, National Beef and JBS USA Beef. The newspaper also examined "the network of feedlots, processing plants, animal drug companies and lobbyists who make up the behemoth known as Big Beef," and found an increasingly concentrated industry that mass-produces beef at high speeds in mega-factories that dot the Midwest," McGraw writes.

The industry calls the tenderization process, which injects marinades into meat, "blading" or "needling," and it's been around for decades, McGraw reports. Exact figures about the amount of beef that is bladed or needled are scarce, but a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that more than 90 percent of beef producers are using it on at least some cuts of meat. Mechanically tenderized beef isn't labeled, and it's increasingly sold in grocery stores, and "a vast amount" is sold to family-style restaurants, hotels and group homes. Many times, those buyers don't know the meat has been tenderized.

Blading and needling can drive pathogens deep into meat, McGraw writes. If that meat isn't cooked properly, people can get sick, or even die. The USDA has recalled the marinades injected into beef several times since 2000, and a Canadian recall in October included steaks imported into the U.S. The American Meat Institute listed eight recalls between 2000 and 2009 in a letter to the USDA in 2010. Those recalls sickened at least 100 people, McGraw reports. Food safety advocates say the incidence of illness from tenderized beef is likely much higher.

In a three-part series, McGraw also wrote about the use of antibiotics in animals creating resistant bacteria that threatens humans, a subject we have frequently covered here, and the beef industry's efforts to influence federal dietary guidelines. To read it, click here.

AMI President J. Patrick Boyle defends the machine-marinated product as safe and called the report biased and "a huge disappointment." He said in a statement that the industry was attempting to be transparent by allowing McGraw and Myers "unprecedented access" to two large packing plants, at least one feedlot and a processing plant. "We find it impossible to reconcile the conclusions reached by the Star with data from the Centers for Disease Control, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies."

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