Commentary: The limits of labeling

Product labeling has been one of the hottest issues so far this year.

Along with the high-profile passage and subsequent legal challenge to Vermont"s first-ever mandatory GMO labeling law, there have been battles over Country of Origin labeling, a coalition of organic growers and marketers petitioning to have the word "natural" banned from labels and now a new controversy in Canada, albeit a less-prominent one: mechanical tenderizing.

As of late last month, Canadian consumers are now seeing a new label statement identifying fresh meat products that have been mechanically tenderized. The law was enacted in the aftermath of the XL Foods beef recall in 2012 due to contamination from E. coli O157:H7. It was the largest such recall in the country"s history, and the media have treated the new requirement as a logical outcome of that incident.

"Mechanical tenderization of meats allows for some varieties of cuts to be more palatable for consumers," British Columbia"s Times-Colonist newspaper stated, "but back in 2012, mechanical tenderizers at XL Foods were not properly maintained. As a result, millions of kilos of beef were contaminated and many consumers ended up in the hospital."

In reality, however, a thorough post-incident investigation determined that the cause of the food-borne outbreak was manifold, including a number of serious issues with what was termed "the food-safety culture" at XL Foods.

Or the lack thereof.

The investigative panel which included high-profile representatives from among producers, processors, food-safety and health authorities and microbiologists concluded that the most likely cause of the contamination was "an animal heavily contaminated with E. coli O157:H7" whose carcass was insufficiently decontaminated during processing, which then contaminated fabrication equipment and spread pathogens throughout a large production run.

It was a scenario familiar to anyone in the beef industry but one compounded by a series of deficient procedures on the part of the company, including:

  • Inadequate sanitation on the offending piece of equipment
  • Clogged nozzles on a pasteurizing machine
  • Failure to identify a "high-event period" when beef trim tested positive for E. coli O157:H7
  • Failure to "bracket" product properly with regard to sampling
  • Unacceptable application of the plant"s HACCP system, including the absence of detailed documentation, inconsistent trend analysis and insufficient record-keeping on validation processes and equipment maintenance

As a result, the investigative panel developed recommendations addressing all of the above points and more to forestall another such outbreak and recall incident. Among its 30 specific recommendations, there was nary a word about consumer labeling, In fact, in the section headlined, "To strengthen communication with the public and stakeholders about providing food safety messages," the panel merely stated that "Health Canada should work with the Retail Council of Canada to vigorously pursue opportunities to educate consumers about proper meat handling methods. This could include initiatives such as distributing disposable meat thermometers and educational brochures at retail meat counters."

Fixing the underlying problem

Among the panel"s recommendations No. 8 on the list was the following: "Health Canada must complete its risk assessment of mechanically tenderized beef," since the use of such technology when applied to contaminated whole muscle cuts can potentially drive pathogens deeper into the meat. Since many consumers don"t cook whole-muscle cuts to a well-done state, the risk is obvious.

Canadian legislators thus mandated that a label statement identifying meat products treated with mechanical tenderizing be placed on retail meat packages, ostensibly so people could treat whole-muscle cuts the same way they"ve (supposedly) been trained to handle ground meat products: precautionary sanitation measures and thorough cooking to kill off pathogens.

Here"s the problem, though (in addition to the proven fact that a majority of shoppers don"t bother to read or respond to label information of any kind): The threat posed by mechanical tenderization isn"t about how consumers handle food in their household kitchens, it"s about application of more effective anti-microbial interventions upstream at production, harvesting, processing and packaging.

Labeling, no matter how explicit or graphic, does not reduce the inherent risks of any product, nor does it necessarily force manufacturers to invest in more robust quality-assurance practices. Yes, people are apprised of the risks, but the conditions creating those risks remain unchanged.

In the same way that it"s impossible to test your way out of potential product contamination, it"s equally futile to attempt to deal with a potentially high-risk situation by cautioning consumers about the danger.

Knowledge might be power, but a label statement suggesting a product might be risky doesn"t empower consumers.

Nor solve the problem.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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