March 4, 2024

Is That Steak You Ordered Safe?

A nice juicy steak, with a crisp crust and juicy interior, is something many of us enjoy at restaurants. Meat-lovers often order their steaks cooked rare or medium-rare. But is that safe?

Ordinarily, the only bacteria on steak we need to worry about is on the surface. The interior is sterile, at least until the steak is cut. Steak flesh is quite dense, so bacteria can’t penetrate through to the center. But there are two types of steak that you may want to avoid, or consider ordering well-done: blade-tenderized steaks and steaks assembled with “meat glue”.

The Food Safety Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, is considering re-labeling blade-tenderized steaks, according to page 125 of the Unified Agenda of January 20, 2012. The Agenda states:

The Agency will propose that raw, needle or blade, mechanically tenderized, meat and poultry products be labeled to indicate that they are “mechanically tenderized.” In addition, FSIS will propose that labels of raw mechanically tenderized
product include cooking instructions that have been validated to ensure adequate pathogen destruction.

Why is this change being proposed?

Blade-tenderized steaks

These steaks have been “mechanically tenderized”, as opposed to being treated with enzymes such as bromelain. During this process, fine needles or blades piece through the meat, which transfers bacteria from the steak’s surface to the interior.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, estimates that 50,000,000 pounds of these products are produced every month in this country. That body also reports that 74% of establishments that serve this type of processed meat do not label it accordingly.

While the American Meat Institute claims this method does not raise the risk of food poisoning, many scientists disagree. The USDA conducted a risk assessment on this type of beef and agreed with the AMI, to a point. Food safety experts say that the USDA’s study was flawed, since the sample size was very small.

In that 2002 risk assessment, USDA stated that if these types of steaks are cooked very rare, “the potential for an infective dose of E. coli 0157:H7 to be contained in the interior of blade-tenderized beef exists.” And although the government gave its blessing to blade-tenderized beef, it does recommend those steaks be cooked to a higher temperature of 145 degrees F (medium) in an oven broiler.

That same report also stated that there is “a paucity of epidemiologic data in relation to illness linked with blade tenderized steaks.” The report also recommended that additional studies should be conducted, especially if an outbreak involving this type of product occurred.

Since that 2002 assessment, some epidemiological data was produced. In late fall of 2009, the USDA recalled almost a quarter of a million pounds of mechanically tenderized steaks that sickened 21 people in 16 states. In June 2009, consumer groups had urged the USDA to make labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized products mandatory. That didn’t happen.

Steaks assembled with meat glue

This type of “steak” is fairly new. Steak isn’t cheap, and prices are rising. Restaurants often have pieces or chunks of meat left over after every dinner. So to use them up and create new “steaks”, an enzyme called “transglutaminase”, is mixed with chunks of beef. The mixture is wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. In the morning, it’s been transformed into “steaks”.

This enzyme, made of the blood of pigs, chicken, and cows, is used on other products too, such as surimi, or imitation crab meat, and chicken nuggets.

Steak connoisseurs would obviously be put off by such a product. And since restaurants don’t have to tell you that the steak on your plate was “produced” in such a fashion, you would never know you’re eating a “fake steak” unless it’s mentioned on the menu or by your server.

But there’s a problem with this technique; all the bacteria on the steak surface is now on the interior, on every single intersection between the different pieces of meat. To be safe, steaks produced in this way must be cooked well-done, to 160 degrees F. And how many customers order a well-done steak?

So the next time you’re ordering a steak in a restaurant, ask some questions about its origins and processing. Your health may depend on it.

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