Grosser Than Pink Slime: Poop-Contaminated, Mechanically Tenderized Beef

To make tough cuts more palatable, beef producers use a process that translates to an E. coli party, reports the Kansas City Star.

Mechanically tenderized beef, like hamburgers, must be a cooked to a higher temperature to kill off bacteria lurking inside. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ratterrell/35727928/sizes/z/in/photostream/">ratterrell</a>/Flickr

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Why is a rare steak and its barely warm center safe to eat? Bacteria like E. coli live only on the meat’s surface, so they’re easily dispatched with a sizzle in the frying pan—that is, unless your steak has been poked with dozens of tiny little blades or needles that pushed bacteria deep into the meat.

The process is called mechanical tenderization, and more than 90 percent of beef producers do it. The blades cut through muscle fibers and connective tissue to make the beef less tough. (Dry aging a steak does the same thing through a chemical process, but it takes a lot longer.)

In the past decade or so, mechanically tenderized steaks have been responsible for at least eight recalls and sickened 100 people. A year-long investigation by the Kansas City Star reveals just how pervasive and unregulated this process is.

The feds’ meat inspection program, called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points or HACCP, has been referred to as “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.”

Food safety advocates want mechnically tenderized meat labeled so restaurants and home cooks know to cook their beef to higher temperatures. It’s the same logic behind the health department recommendation that ground beef be cooked hotter (160 F) than intact cuts (145 F). Even that, however, may not be enough. A study published in the Journal of Food Protection last year found surviving bacteria that hang out in “cold spots” on mechnically tenderized steaks cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F.

Lack of labeling is just one example of the greater problem of lax oversight at meat plants. As the Star reports, the federal government’s meat inspection program, called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points or HACCP, has been sarcastically referred to as “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray” or “Hardly Anyone Comprehends Current Policy.” Meat producers, rather than the government, are responsible for implementing HACCP.

When federal investigators did inspect meat plants, they found plenty of the source for E. coli on beef: poop. Inspection reports obtained by the Star through FOIA requests included hundreds of references to feces. Choice quotes include “massive fecal contamination” and “a piece of trimmed fat approximately 14 inches long with feces the length of it.”

The Star crunched the numbers and found that bigger meat plants had higher rates of positive E. coli tests. Big meat factories, which mix beef from many different sources, also spread contamination wider and make tracing the source of outbreaks more difficult. That’s of little help to people who became sick or even died from eating mechnically tenderized beef.

Read more of the investigation at the Kansas City Star.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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