Myth: Meats That Have Been Tenderized Are Less Safe

Fact:

Tender meat is highly prized by consumers. To meet that demand, North American livestock producers and processors utilize a variety of production management practices and processing techniques. One basic technique used to ensure meat is tender is meat tenderization. Even before the practice began in processing plants, consumers, butchers, retailers and chefs commonly tenderized meat with forks, mallets and meat tenderizing ingredients. Interestingly, this technique is commonly taught in culinary schools as it is so simple, yet so effective.

So why do we need to tenderize meat? Each animal muscle has a purpose, just like human muscles. For instance, leg muscles have to be strong to support the animal’s weight. Typically, the weight-bearing muscles have a higher amount of connective tissue because they contain strong protein. But connective tissue in meat is not desirable as it is tough and doesn’t usually result in a positive eating experience. Mechanically tenderizing the meat physically breaks apart the connective tissue. This simple act helps to ensure the tenderness of the meat product when cooked, which is especially important for cuts with higher quantities of connective tissue.

The most basic type of mechanical tenderization machine uses many tiny blades to break apart the connective tissues. Also, it is common for meat processors to use solutions like marinades in conjunction with the mechanically tenderizing process to add seasonings or further increase the palatability of the product.

Like the larger meat supply, tenderized meats are widely produced and have a good safety record but any time raw meat is handled, there is an increased opportunity for cross contamination – whether in homes, restaurants and meat counters. That is why when meat is tenderized in a plant, antimicrobials are commonly applied to the outside of beef before it is tenderized to ensure safety when cooked and consumed. Available information indicates that no reported illness outbreaks have been associated with products produced in the U.S. that were mechanically tenderized alone.

While some concerns have been raised about tenderization of products that also use a marinade solution, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and public health experts continue to study the process thoroughly. USDA scientists in 2008 stated that the risk of illness from E. coli O157:H7 in tenderized beef steaks is “not significantly higher” than intact beef steaks.1 USDA recommends that mechanically tenderized meat be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit which is a medium rare degree of doneness and then held for three minutes before consuming. 2 This rest period ensures any pathogenic bacteria that may be present are destroyed through the continued cooking that takes place during the rest period.

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If a seasoning or tenderizing solution has been added, the product must state it on the front of the package and the ingredient statement must make clear any ingredients that are used.

Tenderized products are most commonly sold to foodservice providers, but they are also sold at supermarkets and other outlets.

At this time, less than seven recalls have been linked to products that were mechanically tenderized. Since no system is perfect, continual checks are run by meat companies and when needed, improvements are put in place to ensure the safest product is being produced. The meat industry examines information from any outbreak and recall to determine how to prevent this from happening again. Available information indicates these outbreaks resulted from process control failures or improper handling and preparation.3

  1. Pyramid Servings Intakes in the United States USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS Risk Assessments for E. coli O157:H7, Dr. Carl Schroeder, April 2008
  2. USDA, Ask Karen
  3. AMI Fact Sheet, Mechanically Tenderized Meat