What is mechanical tenderization?

By Christopher R. Raines

Another meat recall, this time for “mechanically-tenderized” beef, has prompted much discussion about the need and efficacy of blade tenderization of beef.  There are many different kinds of mechanical tenderization, though each method does exactly this: the method somehow disrupts component(s) of the whole-muscle meat matrix thereby reducing the amount of force required to shear (aka, you chewing, biting) the meat.  It is commonly done as a way to make cheaper (i.e., very low quality grade beef, beef from mature cows) cuts more tender.

Methods include maceration or cubing (like minute or cube steaks), needling or Jaccarding, or blade tenderizing.  There is also injection enhancement of meat (most commonly, pork), which uses needling (albeit hollow needles) to inject a solution of usually water, salt, phosphate, etc. (it’ll say this on the package label:  enhanced with up to X% of name that ingredient).  Individual steaks (as done in restaurants) or (boneless) subprimals cuts (as done more often by suppliers than by restauranteurs) can be mechanically tenderized, and the machinery differs solely in scale.  Large mechanical tenderizers do the same things as this handheld meat tenderizer:

A few points addressing the comments and concerns that have been circulating regarding mechanically tenderized meat since the announcement of this recall:

  • This is not a new way to tenderize meat.  It’s been happening in kitchens for years.
  • This is not a way to “trick” consumers into buying lower-quality cuts of meat.  When it comes to steak, there are differences among the $9.99 12 oz. sirloin steak with all the fixins at restaurant A and the $27 8 oz. sirloin with steamed vegetables and a side salad at restaurant B.
  • This recall affirms that whole-muscle cuts (subprimals) can also be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and thus, grinding one’s own beef in the home doesn’t assure an absence of pathogens.
  • Most of this mechanically-tenderized beef goes to foodservice and not the retail meat case.
  • This could also happen in all-natural, grass-fed, or organic beef.  Ditto for local.
  • This type of steak or roast should be cooked to the same degree of doneness as ground beef.
  • Remember, that E. coli O157:H7 is the only pathogen that is a considered an “adulterant” (why others aren’t is the subject of a larger debate).  Just one cell could spur a recall, and the scale of the recall is largely dependent on the size of the process lotting system.  For example, for this recall, it’s 248,000 pounds of beef — yet it could very well be that only 1 tenderized steak could be contaminated.

And questions that always seem to arise:

  • Should it be illegal to sell ground beef or tenderized steaks cooked to <160°F in restaurants?  Yet there is that “consuming raw or undercooked…” statement in tiny print.
  • Should raw milk be tested and monitored like beef since it can harbor the same pathogens?  How many recalls would there be if it was actually monitored?
  • Why is it that nobody orders chicken breast cooked rare yet they’ll order medium-rare burgers?  Why’s a reason trump riskiness in one case instead of the other?
  • Why is it that a server won’t bat an eyelash if I order a medium-rare burger, yet I have to talk to the manager to get a pork chop cooked anything less than the requisite shoe-leather-well-done?