Where’s the Beef? USDA FSIS Issues Final Rule for Labeling of Mechanically Tenderized Beef Products

May 22, 2015

By Riëtte van Laack

Where’s the beef?  It’s in a recent announcement from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) concerning finalized labeling requirements for mechanically, blade- or needle-tenderized beef.   Under the new rule, published on May 18, 2015, raw or partially cooked mechanically tenderized beef products must bear labels that state that they have been mechanically tenderized.  The labels must also include cooking instructions — including the minimum internal temperatures and any hold times — so that consumers know how to safely prepare the products.

Tenderness is a key selling point for beef products.  To increase tenderness, some cuts of beef are tenderized mechanically by piercing them with needles or small blades in order to break up tissue.  These mechanically tenderized beef cuts look similar to non-tenderized cuts.  However, there is evidence that the mechanical tenderization of beef can pose food safety risks because it can transfer pathogens from the surface of the meat into the center.  Whereas intact cuts of muscle such as steaks are rendered free of pathogenic bacteria even if cooked “rare” or “medium rare” as long as the steaks are seared, mechanically tenderized cuts (just like ground beef products) must be cooked thoroughly to prevent that pathogens inside the cuts from surviving.  Since 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of six outbreaks attributable to needle or blade tenderized beef products in restaurants and consumers’ homes.  Because it is impossible to see whether meat has been mechanically tenderized, the new rule requires that the tenderized products be labeled with a disclosure statement.

The new rule also requires that, unless the product is fully cooked, the labels of mechanically tenderized beef products include validated cooking instructions so that consumers will know how to safely prepare them. The instructions must specify the minimum internal temperatures and any hold or “dwell” times for the products to ensure that they are fully cooked.  FSIS released an updated guidance for the use of federally inspected establishments in developing validated cooking instructions for mechanically tenderized products. 

The new labels need not be submitted to FSIS for approval.  FSIS will consider the labels of raw and partially cooked mechanically tenderized beef products as required in this final rule to be generically approved, provided that they meet applicable regulatory requirements and are not otherwise false or misleading in any particular. 

The main difference between the proposed and final rule is the compliance date.  In 2013, FSIS proposed to use the Uniform Compliance Date for Food Labeling Regulations, which in 2013 was January 1, 2016.  However, for rules issued in 2015, the Uniform Compliance Data is January 1, 2018.  In light of the public health benefits of the new requirements, FSIS set the compliance date 365 days from the date of the rule’s publication in the Federal Register, i.e., May 17, 2016.  FSIS predicts that the changes resulting from the new rule could prevent hundreds of illnesses per year.

The new rule applies only to mechanically tenderized beef, and not to tenderized poultry or other non-beef products.  Although FSIS considered this option, it concluded that there are insufficient data on the production practices and risks of consuming those products.