Not just a hamburger problem | Health Canada to review safe cooking practices for tenderized meat after E. coli scare
Of all the things Agriculture Canada bacteria researcher Tim McAllister has heard about the E. coli scare in Alberta, one thing scares him: meat tenderization.
The scientist, who makes his living studying E. coli and other bacteria involving cattle, is worried about bacteria in the medium rare steaks he enjoys eating.
Cooking to a temperature of 70 C kills E. coli O157:H7, the strain at the heart of the recent XL Foods beef recall. However, the needles used in meat tenderization, if contaminated with the bacteria, can spread it throughout primal cuts of meat.
“The reason why it scared me is because I know there’s a possibility that there could be E. coli on the surface of my steak,” he said at an Oct. 25 meeting of the Southern Alberta Council of Public Affairs.
The tenderization process, which involves insertion of fine needles into meat, can spread bacteria from the surface to the inside of steaks, roasts and other cuts.
E. coli is generally considered to be more of a problem in trim meat, which is ground into hamburger and can come from multiple sources. Ground meat has a larger surface area in which bacteria can hide and multiply.
However, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s investigation of the XL Foods situation showed some of the people who became ill did so after eating beef tenderized in an Edmonton Costco store.
That, in turn, prompted Health Canada to announce a review of the science around safe cooking of tenderized meat.
While it is underway, “Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are encouraging Canadians to cook mechanically tenderized steak and beef cuts to an internal temperature of at least 71 C,” the agency said in a news release.
The review will explore the likelihood that the tenderizing process can spread bacteria and determine best practices that can prevent it.
Cooking meat to the recommended temperature guarantees E. coli bacteria will be killed, said McAllister. It’s part of consumers’ responsibility for food safety, he added.
“I think just a little bit more about the complexity of the microbial world and that we all have to take responsibility for living as part of that microbial world, and the steps that we can take to help protect ourselves in terms of food safety,” he said after his presentation.
“I think that’s the big thing.”
McAllister was circumspect when asked if Canada’s largest beef recall was a case of over-reaction.
“That’s always a hard question,” he said.
“It’s tragic when anybody gets sick from these kinds of things. I think we should be very thankful that nobody died.”
During his presentation, McAllister noted a 2011 E. coli contamination outbreak in Germany, in which E. coli 104:H4 contaminated fenugreek. It killed 53 people and sickened almost 4,000.
The amount of press coverage on that was similar to Canadian coverage of the XL Foods case, in which 16 Canadians were made ill, he said.
“And that sort of speaks for itself.”
He said the incidence of illness from E. coli is dropping in Canada. There were 661 reported cases in 2008, 529 in 2009, 404 in 2010 and a slight upward blip to 482 in 2011.
He estimated the annual cost of E. coli outbreaks at $21 million in direct costs and $82 million in indirect costs.