New food safety measures hope to decrease foodborne illness outbreaks

Chicken and Beef at the MarketFood safety has been on the minds of many political officials lately as a final ruling regarding mechanically tenderized beef was made this week, along with the introduction of two new food safety bills that have the potential to strengthen the federal food safety system.

First, after three years of debate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that they will require mechanically tenderized meat to be labeled and include safe cooking instructions beginning May 2016, two years before the USDA originally said the law would go into effect.

According to a recent article, mechanical tenderizers hammer meat with dozens of needles or small blades to increase tenderness, a sought-after trait by consumers. However, this process can drive dangerous pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella deep inside steaks, roasts and other beef products, where they can survive cooking to rare or medium-rare temperatures, even when the meat appears fully cooked.

That being said, mechanically tenderized beef needs to be cooked to a higher internal temperature and also needs to rest for a specific amount of time before it is safe for consumption, the article states.

“Labeling mechanically tenderized beef products and including cooking instructions on the package are important steps in helping consumers to safely prepare these products,” USDA Deputy Undersecretary Al Almanza, said in the article. “This common-sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been at least six outbreaks of foodborne illness attributable to mechanically tenderized beef prepared in restaurants and homes since 2000.

Because mechanically tenderized beef looks no different than intact cuts, without any labels to distinguish meat, consumers and restaurants alike currently do not know if they’ve bought something that needs to be cooked more thoroughly, the article states.  But with the new labeling requirement, the USDA expects to educate consumers and prevent hundreds of illnesses every year.

However, not everyone agrees that labeling this meat is necessary.

“Data show that our proactive, food safety efforts have improved these products’ safety profile over the last several years,” Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said in the article. However, he added that the North American Meat Institute will work with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to implement the new labeling requirement in the most effective manner for both industry and consumers.

The USDA estimates that mechanical tenderizing is used for about 11% of beef products annually, or 2.6 billion pounds. However, those who work in beef processing plants estimate that the percentage is actually much higher — about 90%, the article states.

In related news, The “Meat and Poultry Recall Notification Act,” was recently introduced in the Senate and aims to strengthen authority the USDA to recall contaminated meat and poultry.

Currently the FSIS, which operates under the umbrella of the USDA, can only require a recall if meat or poultry contains a contaminant or pathogen that the agency already bans — for example, E.coli O157, another article states.

However, this bill would give the FSIS broader authority to require a recall if a company’s product was known to be contaminated and it refused to comply with an initial request. In addition, the bill would also encourage retailers to notify customers if products they bought had been recalled via shopper or rewards cards and create “recall summary notices” to be displayed in stores, so customers could see what had been recalled.

Meanwhile in the House, the “Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act,” was introduced, which would require the USDA to recall any meat, poultry or egg product that contained bacteria or viruses that could cause serious illness or death, or any that were resistant to antibiotics.

The article states that these bills come after the Frontline investigation, The Trouble with Chicken, which aired Tuesday night and delved into the food safety system and detailed a dangerous strain of Salmonella, called Salmonella Heidelberg, that made more than 600 people ill during an outbreak that lasted from March 2013 to July 2014 and was linked a specific brand of chicken.

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