Published Thursday, March 28, 2013 9:45PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, April 2, 2013 1:47PM EDT
MONTREAL—Most people know to cook ground beef well, but there are other cuts of beef that can also make you sick.
“My pan is nice and warm, and you see the heat is starting to penetrate the steak,” Chef Daniel Trottier says as he grills up some thick steaks. “My pleasure for this steak is rare, rare to mid-rare.”
Trottier is very careful not to let too much heat get in the meat. There's nothing rare about people who like it the same way.
But beef lovers beware: Not all cuts should be cooked this way and it may surprise you why. Over 20 per cent of Canadian beef has been mechanically tenderized. It's a process that uses blades or needles to make some cuts of meat easier to chew. However, most don't even know that they’re eating it.
Christina Friesen teaches butchery at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts. She sometimes uses a mechanical tenderizer. It's usually done on lesser quality cuts of beef.
“it's all about profitability. If we didn't have the pickers to tenderize this, it would go to ground. That's a lot of meat going into ground. It's to make profit,” said Friesen.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz has a more direct way of putting it: “You can basically make lower quality meat behave as if it were higher quality meat.”
It may be tender and cheap, but it could pose a risk to your health.
Microbiologist Rick Holley says if there is e-coli on the surface of the meat, tenderizing could push it into the centre.
“What that translates to is that the overall risk associated with food-borne illness from intact mechanically tenderized meat products is about two-fold higher,” said Holley, who teaches at the University of Manitoba.
Last September, 18 people got sick after eating beef contaminated with e-coli that came from Alberta’s Xl Foods—five of them after eating mechanically tenderized beef.
“There is an additional risk associated with mechanical tenderization that allows the bacteria to get into the middle of the stuff,” said Holley.
“It's also possible for the needles to become contaminated as you go from steak to steak to steak and you pick up bacteria from one steak and transfer it to another one,” Schwarcz continued.
Public health authorities aren't sure if the tenderizing process was directly responsible for the five cases in Alberta. They're still investigating.
Not warning consumers
As a precaution, Health Canada recommends cooking tenderized beef well—to 71 degrees Celsius or 160 Fahrenheit: the same as ground beef.
That important information is not getting to many consumers because Health Canada has only "recommended" that tenderized beef be labelled. It's strictly voluntary.
From the size of the print in the stores that are doing it, it's easy to miss. As a result, many shoppers are still in the dark.
In its investigation, CTV Montreal found only one major retailer, Costco, that's gone the distance and included instructions on how to safely cook this meat.
Metro's tenderized French roast has big bold print that says “all cooked - all good,” but there's no advice on what that means. Same thing at Provigo, it just says “tenderized.”
Quebec's major grocery chains declined our request for an interview, but say they're abiding by Health Canada's recommendation. Still, without clear guidelines, many beef eaters seem to be letting their taste buds make the decisions.
CTV reporter Rob Lurie cooked some mechanically tenderized beef to Health Canada's standards. It took 15 minutes for the meat to hit the right temperature. The verdict was unanimous: the meat was dry.
So while not a favorite for some, and no mandatory labels, the word's not getting out.
Some grocers hadn't even heard about Health Canada's recommendations.
Esposito's grocery stores printed detailed labels explaining proper cooking procedure as soon as as soon as CTV Montreal told the chain about the cooking guidelines for mechanically tenderized beef. They hope others will quickly follow suit.