AAMP Mechanically Tenderized Beef Comments – FSIS

RE: Comments- Docket No. FSIS-2008-0017: Descriptive Designation for Needle- or Blade-Tenderized (Mechanically Tenderized) Beef Products; 78 Fed. Reg. 34589; (June 10, 2013)

The American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) respectfully submits the following comments regarding the proposed rule; Descriptive Designation for Needle- or Blade-Tenderized (Mechanically Tenderized) Beef Products. AAMP would like to thank the agency for seeking comments from stakeholders regarding the proposed rule and the extended time given to develop those comments.

AAMP is an international organization whose members include meat and poultry processors, slaughterers, caterers, food service companies, wholesalers, retailers, suppliers and consultants to the meat and poultry industry. There are 30 state, regional, and provincial associations of meat processors that are also affiliated with AAMP. The majority of our members are small and very small businesses, with most of them being family owned and operated. While the total group of small and very small meat processors in the U.S. represents about 5% of the total meat production volume in the U.S., those same type of meat processing businesses constitute approximately 95% of the total number of meat processing businesses in the U.S. As a national meat trade association, we are proud that we have members who own businesses of all sizes, but the “backbone” of our organization remains the small and very small independently owned firms across the United States.

AAMP members are continually working to improve their processes to ensure production of not only the highest quality products, but also the safest. AAMP members have always partnered with the Food Safety and Inspection Service in an effort to produce only safe/wholesome foods for public consumption, and they continue to do that daily. Food safety is of utmost importance to our members and as we look at the proposed rule it is hard to see where it improves food safety. The current labeling of these products that have been needle injected or blade tenderized are already using recognizable and usual names that consumers understand.

The use of safe handling and cooking instructions in conjunction with the current labeling structure, which would serve to provide consumers with more useful safety information, should be looked at instead of proposing labeling that does not improve food safety. The following AAMP comments have been consolidated to focus on a limited number of main points regarding the proposed rule. It is our hope that the agency would give careful consideration and attention to our comments and our request that FSIS withdraw the proposal.

Mechanically Tenderized Beef Products present a low food safety risk.

A risk assessment for mechanically tenderized products was conducted by FSIS in March 2002. The agency concluded from that risk assessment that mechanically tenderized products did not represent an increased risk in relation to intact meat cuts. The risk assessment predicted 1 illness per 15.9 million servings of intact meat and 1 illness per 14.2 million servings of mechanically tenderized meat. This shows almost no difference in the risk of illness from intact meat versus mechanically tenderized meat the agency concluded, and the probability of E .coli 0157:H7 surviving typical cooking practices in either is miniscule.

FSIS has reported that there were six incidents involving mechanically tenderized products since 2000, with the most recent in December 2009. As a result of these the agency in 2010 updated the risk assessment done in 2002, but has never published the final updated risk assessment or made it public for review. Neither the original or updated risk assessment is mentioned in the preamble to the proposed rule. Also missing is a May 2013 risk assessment done in Canada which findings are consistent with those of the 2002 assessment. The Canadian Risk Assessment stated that “although there is a potential for difference in risk between mechanically tenderized beef and intact beef cuts, this difference is small, and exposure to E. coli0157:H7 appears to be low at this time”. The Canadian risk assessment also found that “mechanically tenderized beef products produced under GMP’s and with interventions applied prior to tenderization, are not perceived to present a significantly increased risk relative to similar produced non-tenderized products in the Canadian marketplace”. The Canadian consideration of intervention use in its analysis is significant because this is an area that FSIS appears to have not considered in the proposed new rule. This is important because it shows that the agency has not considered the movement by industry to use various intervention steps since the 2009 outbreak. It must be noted that there has not been one outbreak in the U.S. related to mechanically tenderized beef cuts in that time. This is a direct result of the improved processing methods, including use of interventions, being utilized by the industry. These changes continue to keep the food safety risk of mechanically tenderized beef products low.

“Mechanically Tenderized” must be included in the Product Name

The proposed rule would require that the product name of mechanically tenderized beef products “include the descriptive designation ‘mechanically tenderized’ and an accurate description of the beef component”. The agency states that by “including this descriptive designation, consumers will be informed that this product is non-intact.” The question we have is why must the term “Mechanically Tenderized” be a part of the product name? In the proposed rule the agency states that it

… has concluded that without specific labeling, raw or partially cooked mechanically tenderized beef products could be mistakenly perceived by consumers to be whole, intact muscle cuts.  The fact that a cut of beef has been needle-or blade-tenderized is a characterizing feature of the product and, as such, a material fact that is likely to affect consumers’ purchase decisions and that should affect their preparation of the product.[1]

Does the reference to the “characterizing feature” of mechanical tenderization suggest that this proposal is not just about food safety? Including the term “mechanically tenderized” in the product name does nothing to promote food safety. The agency has labeling requirements that cover a number of issues that are far more important to food safety then the proposed rule and not one of them affect the product name. Allergens pose a much greater risk to the consumer than “mechanically tenderized” beef products and are listed in the list of ingredients. There is also the mandatory safe food handling instructions which are usually found on the back panel of a package. Neither of these affects the name of the product.

FSIS was petitioned by 2 groups to take action on labeling requirements for mechanically tenderized beef products and both groups focused on food safety. The 2009 Safe Food Coalition petition asked the agency to require that labels disclose the fact that the products have been mechanically tenderized. The reasons for the petition were food safety related:

  •  consumers and restaurants do not have sufficient information to ensure that these products are cooked safely because FSIS does not provide recommended cooking temperatures for mechanically tenderized products;
  • the recommended cooking temperatures for intact products are not appropriate for non-intact, mechanically tenderized products; and
  • a labeling requirement for mechanically tenderized products is critical for consumers and retail outlets so that they have the information necessary to safely prepare these products.

The 2010 petition submitted by the Conference for Food Protection also asked FSIS to issue a mandatory labeling rule for mechanically tenderized beef that would require labels to specify that a cut has been mechanically tenderized. The petition focused on food safety and consumer and food service preparation of mechanically tenderized beef. Neither petition suggested that consumers were being misled or deceived because the term mechanically tenderized did not appear in the product name.

Validated Cooking Instructions

FSIS has proposed to require validated cooking instructions that include, “at a minimum: (1) the method of cooking; (2) a minimum internal temperature validated to ensure that potential pathogens are destroyed throughout the product; (3) whether the product needs to be held for a specific time at that temperature or higher before consumption; and (4) instruction that the internal temperature should be measured by the use of a thermometer.” The agency stated that

To validate the cooking instructions, …, the establishment would be required to obtain scientific or technical support for the judgments made in designing the cooking instructions, and in-plant data to demonstrate that it is, in fact, achieving the critical operational parameters documented in the scientific or technical support.

There appears to be for companies whose product fits under the agency’s guidance documents for validated cooking instructions a “safe harbor”. The problem with respect to validated cooking instructions is the fact that consumers use many different methods of preparation for the product. It would be less confusing for both industry and the consumer to require companies to inform the consumer of a needed temperature that needs to be achieved and recommend the use of a thermometer. This allows the consumer to still prepare the product the way they prefer and still be able to do so in a safe manner.

Because of the reasons stated in this document AAMP respectfully requests that the agency withdraw the proposed rule. If adopted, the proposed rule would bring little or no food safety benefit to the consumer and would likely add costs to the production of mechanically tenderized beef products. If you have any questions regarding these comments feel free to contact me at (717)-367-1168 or Chris@aamp.com

Sincerely,

Christopher Young
Outreach Specialist
American Association of Meat Processors