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Tender Beef, Without The Pathogens: USDA Proposes Labeling Rules

Meat tenderized the old-fashioned way. The industrial method is a mechanized process involving needles.
Meat tenderized the old-fashioned way. The industrial method is a mechanized process involving needles.

In order to make tough cuts of beef more tender, the industry uses a mechanical tenderizing process that involves piercing the meat with needles.

This is effective in breaking up the tough muscle fibers, but there's a downside, too: a higher risk of surface bacteria making their way into the cut of meat, which can set the stage for food poisoning. That's a particular concern when it comes to the center of meat cuts, which don't get heated to the same temperatures as the exterior.

Since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has learned about five foodborne illness outbreaks linked to mechanically tenderized beef.

And what was the common denominator in these outbreaks? Undercooked or raw beef.

So, the USDA has proposed a new rulethat would require new labels for mechanically tenderized meats, so that consumers know what they are purchasing. The thinking is that if you know your cut of meat has been mechanically tenderized, you'll be inclined to cook it a little longer.

"This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically tenderized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions, so that consumers and restaurants can safely prepare these products," wrote USDA Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen in a release announcing the proposal.

Chef Bruce Mattel, who's associate dean for food production at the Culinary Institute of America, says these new labels should be helpful to consumers.

"An experienced cook can assess 'doneness' by the firmness of the product. However, it is always best for everyone, including professionals, to use a thermometer," Mattel says.

And how hot does the internal reading need to be? Mattel says 160 degrees minimum is what home cooks should aim for.

The proposed rule is open for a 60-day comment period. You can weigh in here.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.