Is Your Steak Safe?

Its grilling season! How safe is our steak? 

With the multiple outbreaks of E. Coli infections in the last decade, you'd think we'd want to lower the risk of E. Coli in our food. The most notorious E. Coli 0157:H7, causes 100,000 illnesses, 3,000 hospitalizations and 90 deaths annually in the United States.  Most people thought that avoiding ground meat was enough, as that's what was implicated in the previous outbreaks of contamination. The stories about E. Coli infection highlighted ground meat and gave the impression that steaks and whole cuts were safe.  Even only mentions ground meats on its E. Coli page. So I thought whole cuts of meat were safe. I was wrong.

I first learned about this from one of my professors from medical school that I have kept in touch with.  He's a retired infectious disease specialist and very well educated about the the ills of our current food safety.   I was giving a community lecture on healthy lifestyles and he asked if I'd include mechanically tenderized meats in my next talk.  I didn't know anything about it. And so, my education into this fascinating and hardly talked about process began. Thanks, Dr. Satterwhite.

Steaks are not as safe as you'd think.  Whole cuts of meat have the same risk as ground meats of contamination by E. Coli, if they are mechanically tenderized.  What is "mechanical tenderization" or "blade tenderization"?  This means that the meat has been punctured by several blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers and make the meat more tender and easier to chew.  It also means that if E. Coli and other harmful bacteria are present on the surface, are driven into the meat.  So cooking the meat to internal temperatures under 160 degrees will not kill the harmful bacteria and could make us sick.  That means rare (130-140 degrees), medium rare (145 degrees) and medium (160 degrees) steaks could make us ill, and a piece of blade tenderized meat is only safe if its cooked to well done.  

Whole cuts that are not blade tenderized have a lower risk of contamination, as the bacteria on the surface are destroyed through the cooking process. 

The National Cattleman's Beef Association and the American Meat Institute have recognized this for over a decade and have put out notices for "Best Practices: Pathogen Control During Tenderizing/Enhancing of Whole Meat Cuts" which recognize the risk of these meats not being cooked to 160 degrees.  But nothing in my grocery store tells me any of this.  

Costco has been labeling its meat labels with "blade tenderized" since 2012 after an outbreak of E. Coli was linked to it's mechanically tenderized meat in Canada. It's in tiny print on the label and the cooking temperatures are also not easily seen.  

And finally, starting in June 2016, USDA has required that meats that have been mechanically tenderized be labeled and safe cooking instructions and temperatures should follow the statement on the label.   The label should read "Blade Tenderized" and that it be cooked to an internal temperature above 160 degrees. My question is why wasn't this process banned? Why is it acceptable to increase the risk of illness from our food?  Isn't the mission of our food regulators to keep us safe and healthy and reduce food borne illnesses?  Personally, I'd like to know that all the meat I'm buying is as safe as it can possibly be.  I don't think it's acceptable for someone who likes their steak rare to have a greater risk of getting infected with E. Coli.  Especially when the contamination and illness is avoidable.

Is there an alternative to this madness that still produces a tender and delicious steak?  Of course there is.  But it takes time and care.  Dry aging has been around forever, it's not hard to do and it produces tender, delicious steaks.  I followed Alton Brown's method on Good Eats several years ago with great results.  I now get my meat directly from farmers who don't blade tenderize.  But I'm fortunate enough to have a great farmers market in my neighborhood. That's not how most of us shop.  Maybe it's time to demand better food safety for ourselves and our families by asking our grocery stores to give us safer, non blade-tenderized meats.  It's worth a try. Otherwise, we'll all need to eat our steaks well done.