KANSAS CITY (AP) — The U.S. beef industry has been using practices that could put people's health at risk, including a mechanical meat tenderizing process that might increase the risk of E. coli exposure, according to a newspaper report.
The Kansas City Star, in a series of articles that ended yesterday, spent a year investigating various aspects of the U.S. beef industry, looking at the largest beef packers, including Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Cargill Meat Solutions of Wichita, National Beef of Kansas City and JBS USA Beef of Greeley, Colo. The newspaper also investigated feedlots, processing plants, animal drug companies and lobbyists for the industry.
The tenderizing method, which results in so-called bladed or needled beef, has been around for decades and involves injecting marinades into meat. The industry says the practice is safe, but food safety advocates said it can drive E. coli and other pathogens deeper into the meat, requiring more cooking to destroy them.
Although it's not clear how widely used the tenderizing process is, a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey from 2008 showed that more than 90 percent of beef producers use the method on some cuts. Mechanically tenderized meat usually isn't labeled, the Star reported.
"If it is good meat, you don't have to do something like that to tenderize it," said Tim Klein, CEO of Kansas City-based National Beef. A company spokesman later acknowledged, however, that it does blade some steaks for customers who request them.
Officials with the American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, defended the tenderizing process as safe and cited a 2008 USDA study that said the risk of illness from an E. coli strain in those products "is not significantly higher." Beef industry officials also said E. coli illnesses have dropped in recent years.
"A miracle has occurred in the beef industry," said Janet Riley, senior vice president for public affairs at the American Meat Institute. "Beef is safer, more affordable and more plentiful than it ever has been."
A study published last year in the Journal of Food Protection, however, found that bladed and marinated steaks were two to four times riskier than those that hadn't been tenderized mechanically.
James Marsden, a food safety professor at Kansas State University, said that while the industry is improving, it could do a better job with mechanically tenderized steaks.
"E. coli is impossible to eradicate from beef cattle," he said. But a key to eliminating it in mechanically tenderized steaks is to use "interventions," such as spraying lactic acid on the meat to reduce or eliminate surface contamination.