More labeling requirements proposed for beef

News
Jun 14, 2013

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recently announced a proposed labeling requirement for beef products. Addressing the recent concern over the increased potential for foodborne illness in “mechanically-tenderized” beef, FSIS’ proposal would require all such products to be clearly labeled and come with safe cooking instructions.

Mechanically-tenderized beef is any beef product which has been pierced by needles or sharp blades in order to break up muscle fibers, thereby making the cut more tender. According to research conducted and data collected by FSIS, Agricultural Research Service, and the Center for Disease Control, the mechanical tenderization process may transfer pathogens present on the outside of the meat to the interior. Because of the possible presence of pathogens in the interior of the product, mechanically-tenderized beef products may pose a greater threat to public health than intact beef products, if they are not cooked properly.

Mechanically tenderized beef was a suspect in the XL Foods E. coli-based recall for a while, and the possibility drew consumer awareness to the process of mechanized tenderization. According to FSIS data, 32 cases of food borne illness which required hospitalization and one death have been linked to mechanically-tenderized products since 2009, though the individual who died was said to have not eaten steak at the location where the others were sickened.

Under the proposed rule, mechanically tenderized beef products would “include the descriptive designation” of “mechanically tenderized” clearly on all packages of raw, partially cooked, or marinade-injected beef products. This would exclude all products “destined to be fully cooked at an official establishment.”

Among the details of the proposed labeling are specific visual elements—all words in the label appear in the same style, color, and size as the product name and on a single-color contrasting background—and the plan to include validated cooking instructions if it is deemed necessary. FSIS has also posted a guidance for developing validated cooking instructions for mechanically tenderized product on its website.

The recommendations in the guidance are based on results from published research designed to identify minimum internal temperature and time combinations needed for any given product.

The proposal includes a list of expected costs and benefits associated with the proposal should it be made a rule. FSIS estimates the costs to be between $140,000-349,000, though the details of by what measurement these numbers were reached, what those costs would cover, and who would be paying those costs were unclear.

Interestingly, the proposal did list several non-quantifiable costs and benefits. On the costs side, the proposal acknowledged losses might be sustained by those who produce mechanically-tenderized beef, consumers who prefer rarer beef products might be affected, consumer choice in meats might be affected, and restaurants might suffer losses in the process of changing their operating procedure regarding cooking requirements.

As benefits however, FSIS listed improved transparency with consumers and increased consumer awareness of products, as well as improved business for producers of intact beef cuts and/or suppliers of other meats consumers might turn to as substitutes for mechanically-tenderized beef.

The often-questionable Center for Science in the Public Interest praised the move, calling it a common-sense remedy to what it called a “little-known but widespread industry practice” which could endanger consumers. It additionally called for the acceleration of the timeline, calling for labeling requirements to be made mandatory by January of 2014. Under the current FSIS proposal, the compliance date for labeling mechanically-tenderized beef products would be January 2016.

The proposal can be found online on the FSIS website at www.fsis.usda.gov, search term “34589” for the text version and “34589 pdf” for the PDF version. There is a public comment period and comments must be received by Aug. 9, 2013.

Comments must be submitted through the Federal e- Rulemaking Portal at www. regulations.gov, or by mail to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FSIS, OPPD, RIMD, Docket Clearance Unit, Patriots Plaza III, Room 8-164, 355 E Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-3221. All items submitted by mail or electronic mail must include the agency name and docket number, which will be assigned when it is published in the Federal Register. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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