WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Special safety labels won’t be required for mechanically tenderized meat until at least 2018 after the Obama administration failed to finalize the regulation in time for it to take effect earlier.
The labeling rule, which will require packages to provide cooking instructions for the meat, had to be finalized by Dec. 31 in order for it to take effect before 2018 under separate requirements of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
FSIS first proposed the labeling for mechanically tenderized meat in June 2013 out of concern that consumers aren’t cooking the meat properly to eliminate pathogens. The meat is tenderized with knives and needles that can drive bacteria inside the product.
However, the meat industry strongly opposes the labeling requirement and USDA officials did not send the final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review until Nov. 21. The regulation remains pending at OMB. Under FSIS labeling regulations, the labeling rule could have taken effect as soon as 2016 only if it had been cleared by OMB and approved by USDA by Dec. 31.
“It’s really a very unnecessary delay,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “It means consumers remain at risk because they don’t have the information they need.”
Waldrop was among several consumer advocates who met with OMB officials last month and urged them to ensure that the rule was finalized by the end of the year. The consumer advocates acknowledged at the meeting that the rule “had been bottled up in (Agriculture Secretary Tom) Vilsack’s office for months,” said Tony Corbo, senior food lobbyist for Food and Water Watch.
Canada, which was the source of an E. coli outbreak in 2012 linked to mechanically tenderized beef, implemented a similar labeling requirement last year.
The Costco Wholesale Corp. chain, which sold some of the meat linked to the outbreak, voluntarily began labeling its tenderized beef products.
USDA officials referred questions about its handling of the labeling rule to OMB, which declined to comment on the issue and noted that the agency has at least 90 days to review a rule.
The meat industry has argued that the meat doesn’t pose a significant risk and that the special cooking instructions aren’t warranted. “We have long believed and communicated to USDA that the proposed rule is unnecessary,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs and general counsel for the North American Meat Institute. “This is a solution in search of a problem because the industry has taken steps to address concerns that may have existed several years ago. NAMI was formerly the American Meat Institute.
The Costco label says the meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Corbo said the final FSIS rule is likely to offer consumers an option to the 160-degree minimum: Cook the meat to 145 degrees and let it stand for least three minutes. The meat will continue to cook internally for the three minutes even though it is no longer on the heat source.