SIOUX CITY, Iowa Margaret Lamkin doesnt visit her grandchildren much anymore. She never flies. She avoids wearing dresses. And she worries about infections and odors.
Three years ago, at age 87, Lamkin was forced to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life after a virulent meat-borne pathogen destroyed her large colon and nearly killed her.
What made her so sick? A medium-rare steak she ate nine days earlier at an Applebees restaurant.
Lamkin, like most consumers today, didnt know she had ordered a steak that had been run through a mechanical tenderizer. In a lawsuit, Lamkin said her steak came from National Steak Processors Inc., which claimed it got the contaminated meat from a U.S. plant run by Brazilian-based JBS the biggest beef packer in the world.
You trust people, trust that nothing is going to happen, said Lamkin, who feels lucky to be alive at 90, but they (beef companies) are mass-producing this and shoveling it into us.
Mechanical tenderizing key
The Kansas City Star newspaper investigated what the industry calls bladed or needled beef, and found the process exposes Americans to a higher risk of E. coli poisoning than cuts of meat that have not been tenderized.
The process has been around for decades. While exact figures are elusive, USDA surveys show that more than 90 percent of beef producers are now using it.
Mechanically tenderized meat is increasingly found in grocery stores, and a vast amount is sold to family-style restaurants, hotels and group homes.
The American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, has defended the product as safe, but institute officials recently said they cant comment further until they see the results of a risk assessment by the meat safety division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Process may imbed E.coli
Although blading and injecting marinades into meat add value for the beef industry, that also can drive pathogens including the E. coli O157:H7 that destroyed Lamkins colon deeper into the meat.
If it isnt cooked sufficiently, people can get sick. Or die.
There have been several USDA recalls of the product since at least 2000. A Canadian recall in October included mechanically tenderized steaks imported into the U.S., but its not clear how many people were sickened.
In a 2010 letter to the USDA, the American Meat Institute noted eight recalls between 2000 to 2009 that identified mechanically tenderized and marinated steaks as the culprit. Those recalls sickened at least 100 people.
But food safety advocates suspect the incidence of illness is much higher.
An estimate by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, suggests that mechanically tenderized beef could have been the source of as many as 100 outbreaks of E. coli and other illnesses in the United States in recent years. Those cases affected more than 3,100 people who ate contaminated meat at wedding receptions, churches, banquet facilities, restaurants and schools, the center said.
Probe of Big Beefs methods
But thats just one of the key findings from The Stars investigation, which examined Big Beefs processing methods, the use of drugs in cattle and the hazards they can pose for human health.
The Star examined the largest beef packers, including the big four Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Cargill Meat Solutions of Wichita, Kan., National Beef of Kansas City, Mo., and JBS USA Beef of Greeley, Colo. as well as the network of feedlots, processing plants, animal drug companies and lobbyists who make up the behemoth known as Big Beef.
What The Star found is an increasingly concentrated industry that mass-produces beef at high speeds in mega-factories that dot the Midwest.
Its a factory-food process churning out cheaper, and some say tougher, cuts of meat that can lead to illness and death.
The big slaughterhouses are among the last vestiges of old-line American manufacturing, except that they take things apart instead of putting them together. Meat slaughter and processing employs 260,000 people, and Big Beefs highly efficient plants supply a large share of those jobs in the Midwest.
As a result, despite recent price hikes, beef costs less in the United States than anywhere in the world.
But some independent ranchers, members of Congress and food safety advocates question the wisdom of processing so much beef at such speeds, arguing that factory food is more likely to trigger pathogen outbreaks.
Their reasoning: When processing speed and volumes rise, so do the chances for contamination to be introduced and spread widely from its source to other meat inside the plant and at other plants that process it further.
E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and, in severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are most at risk. A recent lawsuit against National Steak and JBS noted that there are an estimated 73,480 illnesses linked to E. coli O157:H7 infections each year in the United States, leading to 2,168 hospitalizations and 61 deaths.
USDA and beef industry officials point out that E. coli illnesses have dropped dramatically in recent years, although the Food Safety and Inspection Service cautioned that no consistent trend has emerged in recalls of contaminated beef.
Blading, injecting ups profits
More and more, the beef industry is using machines with automated, double-edged blades to cut through muscle fibers and connective tissue to penetrate tougher cuts of meat.
Hollow needles are sometimes used to inject flavorings, or what the industry calls digestive agents. Marinades also may be added to meat, which can add to contamination risks.
Surveys of beef producers by the USDA found that most use mechanical tenderization to improve quality. A large percentage of mechanically tenderized meat the industry produces at least 50 million pounds a month winds up in family-style restaurants, hotels, hospitals and group homes.
For Big Beef, mechanically tenderized meat is all about bigger profits, according to food safety advocates. However, the beef industry doesnt widely publicize the process, and some food safety advocates say the reason is such labeling can lead to sales declines.
The American Meat Institute, citing a 2008 USDA study, has maintained that the risk of illness from E. coli O157:H7 in such products is not significantly higher.
But a more recent study published last year in the Journal of Food Protection found that bladed and marinated steaks were two to four times riskier than those that had not been mechanically tenderized.
Some experts say Big Beef is relying on the process more because beef is getting tougher.
Feed changes, tougher meat
Changes in animal feeding practices are causing cattle to come to market sooner, said David Theno, a beef industry consultant and leading food safety expert. Those animals often have less marbling and may be less tender than animals that spend more time in feedlots, he explained.
Theno, who helped the Jack in the Box restaurant chain reform its practices after an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the 1990s, said problems with mechanically tenderized meat can arise because many consumers dont want their steaks overcooked. But failing to heat them sufficiently can allow pathogens to survive.
USDA research also discovered an ominous phenomenon in mechanically tenderized and marinated meat. The 2011 Journal of Food Protection article warned that cooking highly contaminated bladed steaks on a gas grill even at 160 degrees like hamburger might not kill all E. coli bacteria.
Those remaining living pathogens, ironically called fortuitous survivors by scientists, survive because of cold spots in the meat.
The American Meat Institute has said that blade-tenderized steaks are just as safe as other steaks if the meat is properly cooked. The institute also found that if researchers had allowed the steaks to rest and continue cooking for an additional three minutes before taking their samples, those remaining fortuitous survivors may have been killed.
Food safety advocates, however, point out that most consumers, restaurants and grocery stores dont know theyre buying bladed meat and dont know it should be cooked more thoroughly. The Safe Food Coalition strongly believes such products pose a serious and unnecessary threat to public health.
Not every beef company uses mechanical tenderizers, though all of the big four packers acknowledged using them at some point in their production process. But Big Beefs slaughterhouses are only the first stop in the meat distribution network, and mechanical tenderization can happen anywhere up to and including the point of sale, such as grocery stores.
It doesnt matter where in the process it occurs, said Pat Buck, who co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness, Research and Prevention after her 2-year-old grandson, Kevin, died from eating E. coli-contaminated ground beef.
But once it occurs, whether its at processing, retail or somewhere in between, we believe it is the obligation of the person who does it to label it.
Problems with contaminated mechanically tenderized beef are growing and becoming international in scale.
Just this fall, an estimated 2.5 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated meat, including mechanically tenderized cuts, quietly crossed the Canadian border into the United States before being caught by inspectors.
The bad meat came from XL Foods Inc., prompting the largest meat recall in Canadian history.
As of late October, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 17 people became sick in that country, including at least five who ate mechanically tenderized steaks. The Canadian recall came too late in the United States. Some of the meat already had been distributed in at least 30 states to retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sams Club.
By now, the contaminated meat has probably been eaten, frozen or thrown away, and so far no illnesses connected with the outbreak have been documented in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still investigating.
E. coli outbreaks, for mechanically tenderized steaks and ground beef, are difficult to trace to their source because the beef production system is complex and the food safety enforcement system is broken, according to food safety advocates and members of Congress.
The Stars investigation found that Robert Danell, a 62-year-old man with Down syndrome, died after he and one other at a group home in Sauk Rapids, Minn., fell ill as part of the same E. coli outbreak involving the steak that made Lamkin sick.
Lamkins and Danells illnesses, and those of two dozen others, shouldnt have come as a surprise to federal regulators and the beef industry.
Labeling of bladed meat urged
For years, the USDA has urged the industry to voluntarily label such products, but found in 2008 that few beef plants were doing so. Costco is among stores that do label such products as being bladed. Those labels advise consumers that for your safety USDA recommends cooking to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.
Not labeling mechanically tenderized beef jeopardizes consumers and puts health officials at a disadvantage if theres an outbreak of E. coli, experts said.
The meat associations do not want labeling on their products because they believe that it will cause confusion and reluctance to buy the product, said Buck of the Center for Foodborne Illness.
Pleas to the USDA to force the labeling of mechanically tenderized meat went unheeded for years.
Even one food industry group complained that restaurants cant tell the difference between a regular steak and a mechanically tenderized steak, especially when frozen. The Conference for Food Protection asked the USDA in 2010 to require labels for it.
Without clear labeling food retailers including restaurants and retail stores, and consumers do not have the necessary information to safely prepare these products, the conference said.
USDA begins investigation
The recent Canadian E. coli outbreak prompted health officials there to consider labeling mechanically tenderized steaks, and the Canadian government advised food preparers to cook them to 160 degrees.
In the United States there has been no such public advisory and there still are no special labeling requirements.
For now, the USDA recommends cooking all beef steaks mechanically tenderized of not to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees, then letting them sit for 3 minutes.
While slow to respond, the USDA has begun a complex and lengthy process that could eventually require more specific labels for mechanically tenderized beef steaks. As part of that process, the beef industry, the public and consumer groups will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal, which could be changed, or even dropped.
The USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to discuss specifics of the proposal.
The American Meat Institutes position on the issue may be changing.
In 2009, after the outbreak that sickened Lamkin and the others, a statement on the Institutes website called for an investigation, but noted that USDA research had found that mechanically tenderized steaks are comparable in safety to other steaks. They added, We dont believe that special labeling will provide meaningful or actionable information to consumers.
Today, Institute officials maintain that statement does not mean they oppose labeling those products. Spokeswoman Janet Riley told The Star recently: We are on the cusp of a great deal of new information (from the USDA) that will prompt careful review and, possibly, a change.