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USDA to require safety labels on mechanically tenderized beef

WASHINGTON — The government will soon require labels on packages of beef tenderized by machines so shoppers know to cook it thoroughly.

The Agriculture Department said Wednesday the labels will be required starting in May 2016. Mechanically tenderized meat is poked with needles or blades to make it tender, a process that can transfer bacteria from the outside of the cut of beef to the inside. Since many people eat cuts of meat that aren’t fully cooked in the center, that bacteria can pose a safety hazard.

The labels will say that the meat has been “mechanically tenderized,” ”blade tenderized” or “needle tenderized.” They also will include cooking instructions to ensure consumers cook the meat long enough to kill any bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been six outbreaks of illness linked to mechanically tenderized beef in the last 15 years. USDA predicts that the new labels and cooking instructions could prevent hundreds of illnesses annually.

“This common sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses,” said Al Almanza, head of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Meat industry officials say they have worked to make tenderized products safer over the years, and they don’t think the products need to be labeled. But the North American Meat Institute’s Barry Carpenter said USDA worked with the industry on the rules, which were initially proposed in 2013, and the meat companies will put them in place.

“We are confident in the safety of products that are mechanically tenderized to increase tenderness, a trait that consumers desire in meat products,” Carpenter said.

Consumer groups pushed for the labels, saying consumers don’t always know when meats have been tenderized or that they can be unsafe.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has long argued for stricter food safety rules, called the potential illnesses from tenderized beef a critical public health issue. She praised USDA for moving to require the labels.

“The serious and urgent health risks associated with consuming mechanically tenderized meats are clear,” DeLauro said.