When Is A Steak Not A Steak?

Have you ever noticed that the USDA recommends that steaks and roasts be cooked to 145° while ground beef should be cooked to 160°? Have you ever wondered why there is a difference? After all, beef is beef -- right?
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isolated beefsteak
isolated beefsteak

Have you ever noticed that the USDA recommends that steaks and roasts be cooked to 145° while ground beef should be cooked to 160°? Have you ever wondered why there is a difference? After all, beef is beef -- right?

Actually there is a very good reason for the difference. While meat starts out sterile, it can become contaminated with bacteria -- like E. coli O157:H7 -- when it isn't handled properly during slaughtering or processing, and once contaminated, the only thing that will kill the bacteria is heat. With intact cuts of meat -- like steaks and roasts -- that contamination will be on the surface, not on the inside. Pathogens on the surface are much easier to kill, after all, the outside of the meat heats up much faster than the inside does, so the recommended temperature can be lower. However, with non-intact meat -- like ground beef -- surface bacteria can be moved moved or "translocated" to the inside of the meat where it is harder to kill, so a higher temperature is required. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Intact meat gets cooked to a lower temperature of 145° and non-intact meat gets cooked to 160°.

Unfortunately, steaks and roasts are often not as they seem.

So, when is a steak not a steak and a roast not a roast? As soon as its surface has been pierced, a steak or roast becomes a non-intact cut of meat and should be cooked to a higher temperature. Many of us grew up learning to make our steaks and roasts juicer and more flavorful by piercing them with a fork and letting them sit in a marinade for a while. Now, you may not be fully aware of it, but stabbing the meat created a "hide-out" for bacteria like E. coli O157:H7. And it means that the pierced steak or roast should be cooked differently. Now, assuming that you know about the increased risk of illness, you can make an informed choice about how well you want to cook that steak or roast. But what happens when you don't know that the steak or roast you have just bought or been served was already tenderized? How do you make an informed choice then?

According to the USDA estimates, 18% of all beef steaks and roasts manufactured in the United States are mechanically tenderized. This mechanically tenderized process pushes hundreds of needles or sharp blades into steaks and roasts to make tougher cuts of meat more tender and therefore more palatable to consumers. It also takes any pathogens on the outside of the meat and pushes them to the inside - as shown by multiple scientific studies, including ones conducted by USDA. So, for food safety reasons, the "steak" or "roast" needs to be treated like ground beef and must be cooked thoroughly to kill any bacteria that are still alive inside the meat. Eating an undercooked steak or roast that has been mechanically tenderized has a higher risk of causing foodborne illness. Children, pregnant and post-partum women, senior citizens and anyone with a compromised immune system are particularly vulnerable and could develop serious life-threatening complications.

Currently, mechanically tenderized cuts of meat are not labeled, even though they look the same as non-tenderized products. Basically, they are non-intact cuts of meat that look intact. Consumers cannot tell the difference and, therefore, have no way of knowing that they need to be prepared differently. To be safe, these steaks and roasts cannot be grilled and eaten medium rare -- like intact steaks and roasts can be. Consumers need to know that there really is a difference in risk, which means "a steak is not always a steak and a roast is not always a roast." This is especially true when a major E. coli outbreak is in process, like today.

XL Foods Inc., a Canadian firm, has recalled all the beef produced in one of their slaughtering plants for unsanitary conditions, after a United States border checkpoint found E. coli O157:H7 in its testing. Over the past two weeks, Canada has expanded its original recall of beef trim (used in making ground beef) thirteen times. The most recent update, on October 1st, expanded the growing list of retailers and included all steaks, roasts and other cuts destined for retail sale. Mechanical tenderization was applied to some of the recalled steaks and roasts, which means that consumers eating mechanically tenderized Canadian XL Food products are at a higher risk for acquiring an E. coli O157:H7 infection. Four of Canada's reported eight illnesses are linked to steaks, and U.S. officials know that a large amount of product, including beef steaks and roasts, have been shipped to stores throughout the United States. Consumers should view all of the Canadian XL Foods' beef products as being potentially contaminated with deadly E. coli O157:H7 and should return or discard the product. More information about the recall is available here.

The recall of Canadian beef that began last month highlights mechanically tenderized meat as a critical food safety issue. For the past three years, consumer groups have worked to put in place labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized meats. Those efforts have paid off -- a rule that would require mechanically tenderized products to be labeled has recently been approved by the Secretary of Agriculture and sent to the White House for final approval. Consumers can write to the White House's Office of Management and Budget and tell the President's staff that USDA's label proposal for mechanically tenderized meat must be approved immediately. Labeling of mechanically tenderized meat products is a consumer protection that is fairly inexpensive to implement, but the benefits for labeling these products could be great.

Ultimately, consumers have a right to know what they are buying and eating. They must be given the information they need to make informed decisions about their food choices. After all, what you - the consumer - put into your mouth can directly impact your health. You have a right to know.

Barbara Kowalcyk Ph.D. is the CEO of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention. Her story was featured in Food, Inc. and in 2010 was voted an Ultimate Game Changer by the Huffington Post.

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