On Christmas Eve, the National Steak and Poultry Company voluntarily recalled 248,000 lbs. of beef due to contamination with a particularly nasty strain of E. coli bacterium, E. coli O157:H7. The bacteria sickened 21 people throughout 16 states, sending 9 to the hospital and prompting the recall. Because this strain of E. coli is potentially lethal, the USDA considers this recall a class 1 or "high health risk" action.
According to the Washington Post, the Dept. of Agriculture has a partial list of restaurants using beef possibly tainted with the bacteria, including two chain restaurants: Moe's and Carino's Italian Grill, located in the West and Mid-West.
Although the CDC is said to have considered this outbreak relatively small, it overlays a larger problem. This is the fourth outbreak of E. coli contamination in mechanically tenderized beef since 2000.
Beef can be tenderized during processing by being hammered by blades or needles to break up more fibrous tissues such as muscles or connective tissue. This process is vulnerable to contamination problems when applied to cuts such as steaks, which are often served rare. The needling process can push bacteria from the surface of the steak to the center where, if served rare, the cooking process may permit the bacteria to survive.
This has been an issue of concern with the USDA for some time. Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, of Consumer Federation of America, would like to see labels placed on mechanically tenderized beef advising consumers not to serve the meat rare. However, James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, disagrees. He says the mechanically tenderized beef is no riskier than any other type and should not carry additional labels.