ANALYSIS - Concerns over E.coli food poisoning and ground beef have long been a high priority following a series of high profile and devastating outbreaks – particularly in the US, writes Chris Harris.
Meat processors have been instituting control measures and improving biosecurity in plants in a bid to reduce the potentially lethal effect that an outbreak can have.
Serous outbreaks have led to the closure and bankruptcy of companies in the past.
Now, however, the attention is turning to tenderised beef as well as ground beef products.
In the June issue of Consumer Reports – the US consumer watchdog organisation’s journal – a report warns that tenderising machines can help to spread E.coli contamination by driving the pathogen into the core of the muscle from the surface.
The concern is that while the E.coli is on the surface of the meat, cooking will kill it. When the pathogen is driven into the meat, as with undercooked ground beef and burgers, the E.coli is not killed if the meat is not cooked right through.
Consumer Reports warns that with the desire to market ever more tender beef products, the risk of contamination is rising. A NCBA report showed that consumers are willing to pay a premium for guaranteed tender beef and a 10 per cent rise on tenderness could be worth up to $170 million a year to the industry.
Consumer Reports says: “Mechanically tenderized beef caused at least five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks between 2003 and 2009, causing 174 illnesses, four of them fatal, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The report adds that while these are not large numbers reported cases only account for between 10 and 25 per cent of the total cases of E.coli food poisoning.
The concern has also been highlighted by the USDA itself in an audit in February this year of E.coli cases in beef.
The audit largely looked at ground been and the incidence that occurred with this product. However, it also highlighted that there are risks with mechanically tenderised beef.
The report from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General says: “FSIS does not, at present, test tenderized meat products, even though these products present some additional risk for E. coli contamination.
“When a steak is tenderized through a needling or needling marinade process, the risk of contamination increases because any E. coli on the outside of the meat could be pushed into the interior.
“If the tenderized steak is then not fully cooked, there is the possibility that a consumer could be made ill by the contaminated meat. We visited five downstream processors that offered tenderized product for distribution to consumers or retail establishments and found that FSIS did not sample tenderized product in any of the five establishments.
“FSIS officials told us that they do not sample these products because they consider them to be at a low level of risk for E. coli and did not see the need for testing. Industry representatives noted that the more obvious tenderized cuts, such as minute steaks or chicken fried steak patties, often originate from tougher and less desirable cuts and consumers tend to thoroughly cook them.
“However, in other cuts it is not as obvious to the consumer that they have been tenderized. Additionally, FSIS officials acknowledged that tenderized products that are also marinated seem to have more problems with pathogen contamination than non-marinated products.
“FSIS officials told us that they have developed a proposed rule that is currently under review, which would require new labeling for mechanically tenderized product, but they do not plan to begin an E. coli sampling program.
“OIG maintains that these tenderized cuts do have some degree of risk. They have been subject to a number of different recalls, including 248,000 pounds of chopped steak product that caused 19 illnesses in 16 States, as well as about 1,000 pounds of tenderized and other product that made 3 students ill.”
At this year’s IFFA exhibition in Germany, food safety was one of the recurring themes among the demonstrations by the food equipment manufacturers.
The exhibition had several equipment companies displaying meat tenderising equipment.
The Italian company Vepa with its Tenerife range stresses the care of hygiene with equipment and conveyors designed for deep cleaning. The Spanish company Fibosa was also displaying tenderising equipment that also pays high attention to biosecurity.
The exhibition showed many developments that equipment manufacturers have been making to increase hygiene and food safety.
The slicer manufacturer, Weber, for instance has introduced Ultra Violet light beams on to the conveyors to help reduce the pathogen count and it has developed machines now in an open format without casings to prevent build-up of potentially harmful particles.
EcoLab has developed an anti-microbial treatment – Airspexx - that eliminates airborne mould and bacteria before it can reach and harm food.
And other companies such as Avure, Hiperbaric and Multivac are progressing with high pressure pasteurisation methods to kill pathogens and bacteria.
However, the concerns that have been raised by Consumer Reports over potential dangers of mechanically tenderised meat have been recognised and moves ate taking place to start to introduce labelling of the products to warn consumers and also to give them a choice.
Labelling is at present a matter of choice, but the industry and retailers appear to be moving towards acceptance that labelling would help to alleviate some fears and boost food safety.
Top image via Shutterstock