Meat processors applaud tenderized beef labelling

But they say ground beef should also carry cautionary labels

ground beef on a conveyor

Meat processors are welcoming Health Canada’s regulations for mandatory cooking advisory labels on all mechanically tenderized beef (MTB) products but wonder why retailers aren’t required to put similar labels on ground beef packages.

Jim Laws, president of the Canadian Meat Council, said in an interview the department’s MTB labelling order, which comes into effect Aug. 21, “encapsulates the council’s main recommendations” made last year. They stemmed from an E. coli 0157:H7 foodborne illness outbreak in late 2012, which was associated with mechanically tenderized beef.

The council said in May 2013 that all its members had agreed to label pre-packaged MTB products. Last July, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency began requiring labelling of all MTB products from a federally inspected meat-processing plant.

At that time, Laws noted the lack of similar labelling requirements for ground beef at retail “when Health Canada’s own research shows that the risk to consumers from mishandling and cooking ground beef is thousands of times greater than the risk from mechanically tenderized beef. The United States has had this requirement for many years.”

The council has been lobbying government to implement labels for safe food handling and cooking of ground beef for the past decade.

The new rules, which come into effect Aug. 21, prohibit the sale of MTB unless it is clearly identified as mechanically tenderized on the label. As well, the label must include instructions to cook the product to a minimum internal temperature of 63 C. If it is a steak, it must contain an additional cooking instruction to turn the steak over at least twice during cooking.

The regulations provide flexibility to industry to include the term “mechanically tenderized beef” anywhere on the principal display of the label — rather than on the product/common name — as long as it meets the requirements of legibility and prominence on the principal display panel, Laws said.

Health Canada wrote the regulations “to minimize any regulatory difference with the mandatory MTB labelling efforts underway in the United States,” he added.

Mechanical tenderizers use a series of needles or blades to puncture tougher cuts of meat to tenderize them. During that process, the needles can transfer any E. coli bacteria present on the surface of the meat into the inside of the product. Proper cooking kills the bacteria.

E. coli is a threat in ground beef because the meat is mixed together, usually at the retail level, again transferring any bacteria from the surface to the interior. Any roasts and steaks that have E. coli, but aren’t tenderized would only have any bacteria on the exterior and it is killed with less cooking than bacteria within the meat.

The tenderizing issue has been around for years but gained a lot of attention during the massive recall of beef products from the former XL plant in Brooks, Alta. At least 18 people in Canada were sickened by contaminated meat from the plant.

One of the first indications of problems at the plant came when American inspectors rejected shipments at the border and warned CFIA.

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