Some grocery stores are changing how they label meat that has been mechanically tenderized.

Health Canada is reviewing the practice after four people from Edmonton got sick by eating E. coli-contaminated steaks that had been tenderized.


Mechanically tenderizing meat is a common practice that has been used for years to improve the tenderness and flavour of cooked beef. (iStock)

The steaks were sold at Costco but came from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta. — which is at the centre of an international beef recall because of an E. coli outbreak.

Mechanically tenderizing meat is a common practice used by suppliers, restaurants and retailers for years to improve the tenderness and flavour of cooked beef.

Health Canada says some meat handlers tenderize cuts of beef, including steaks and roasts, using machines or tools made for this process.

Officials say the internal temperature of a steak, or other solid cuts of meat, is not usually a significant health concern because harmful bacteria that may be present would normally only be on the surface and would be eliminated even if cooked "rare."

But when beef cuts are mechanically tenderized there is a potential for bacteria to spread from the surface into the centre, increasing the chance that bacteria like E. coli is not fully eliminated when the product is cooked "rare."

Health Canada is encouraging Canadians to cook mechanically-tenderized steak and beef cuts to an internal temperature of at least 71 C — which is roughly "medium" doneness — to ensure that any bacteria that may be present in the meat are killed.

Local Co-op takes action

In the meat department at one Calgary Co-op there is just one fast-fry cut that has been mechanically tenderized, and the rest is naturally aged.

Meat operations director Trevor Moore says Co-op took action as soon as Health Canada announced its review.

"We take any health alerts very seriously, so we reacted immediately, instituting that on our label to advise our customers to cook to the internal temperature of 160 degrees [71 C]," he said.

And that's exactly what Health Canada is asking for — it wants meat packers and retailers to voluntarily alert customers when they use mechanical tenderization.

"The benefit is as a consumer if you know that the steak you're buying is a little riskier, if you know it's tenderized, then you would handle it and treat it appropriately," said Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's deputy chief public health officer

Taylor says in the U.S. between 18 and 20 per cent of all meat is tenderized, and part of the Health Canada review will look at just how common the practice is here in Canada.

The review is expected to take about three months.