You may have seen the term “mechanically tenderized beef” or “MTB” on steaks & roasts at your local grocery store. This means the beef has been punctured with blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers and make it easier to chew. But it also means the meat has a greater chance of being contaminated and making you sick.
These labels are a requirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that went into effect in May 2016.
“Blade tenderized,” that label might read, followed by safe cooking instructions: “Cook until steak reaches an internal temperature of 145°F as measured by a food thermometer and allow to rest for 3 minutes.”
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Here’s how it can make you sick: If pathogens like E. coli or salmonella happen to be on the surface of the steak, tenderizing transfers those bacteria from the surface to the inside. Since the inside takes longer to cook and is more likely to be undercooked, bacteria have a higher chance for survival there.
And without a label, you can’t tell if you need to be especially careful with your steak.
Mechanically Tenderized Beef Infographic
What is Mechanically Tenderized Beef?
To increase tenderness some cuts of beef go through a process known as mechanical tenderization. During this process, the steaks are pierced with needles or sharp blades to break up muscle fibers. The tenderization process can take place in the factory before the beef is packaged, at the grocery store’s butcher counter, at a restaurant, or in the home. The USDA FSIS estimates that about 2.7 billion pounds of mechanically tenderized beef are labeled for retail each year, accounting for more than 6.2 billion servings of steak or roast.
What is the Risk?
The process of mechanically tenderizing beef does pose some health risks. With this process, any pathogens on the outside of the steak may be transferred to the inside, posing a potential threat if the beef products are not cooked properly. Consumers should understand that mechanically tenderized products look no different from products that are not mechanically tenderized. Therefore, it is important to remember food safety when preparing these products.
Cooking Beef Safely
All raw beef steaks should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes after it has been removed from the heat source before carving or consuming. During this rest time, the internal temperature is either constant or slightly rises to destroy pathogens.