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Meat labeling advances in Canada, stalls in US

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Above image credit: Meat in Canada that has been mechanically tenderized will now be be labeled as such as of Aug. 24, 2014. The United States does not require labeling of beef that has gone through the tenderizing process. (File photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

Canadian food safety officials have outpaced their U.S. counterparts in requiring meat companies to label meat that is potentially hazardous to consumers.

It’s called mechanically tenderized beef, and it has caused illnesses in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

And in most cases, consumers, restaurants and grocery stores had no idea they were buying it, because there was no requirement that the process be acknowledged on labels.

The process is problematic because automated needles or blades used by meat companies to tenderize tougher cuts of beef can also force pathogens, such as E. coli, into the interior of the meat.

Those pathogens could survive inside solid cuts of beef, such as steaks, because they are less likely to be fully cooked throughout.

Harvest Public Media, in a joint project with the Kansas City Star, reported on the process in December 2012, featuring the case of Margaret Lamkin, a Sioux City, Iowa, grandmother who was forced to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after she ate a contaminated mechanically tenderized steak at a restaurant.

After Lamkin’s and other cases were publicized — and after a 3-year battle by consumer groups — the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year proposed requiring labels for the products.

Officials in Canada, where consumers have also been harmed by the products, required labeling on those cuts beginning Aug. 24 this year. The U.S. proposal is still wending its way through the federal bureaucracy here.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week that a revised labeling rule is now in “departmental clearance.” He said the department is hoping to submit the labeling rule for White House approval sometime over the next few weeks and publish it by the end of this calendar year.

Canadian officials said they found a five-fold increase in risk from mechanically tenderized beef when compared to intact cuts of beef.

Their labeling requirement applies to all industry sectors selling fresh or frozen MTB (mechanically tenderized beef) to other industry members or consumers in an uncooked, solid-cut form. It requires that the mechanical tenderization process be listed and that safe cooking instructions be included.

In the case of steak, the Canadians are requiring instructions on the label warning consumers to “turn steak over at least twice during cooking.”

It is unclear at this point what the final U.S. label might require once it is finalized.

However, the U.S. meat industry has gone on record to oppose such labeling. The American Meat Institute has said such labels could just end up confusing consumers.

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