Health groups warn: Consumers 'in the dark' about E. Coli risk

Health groups are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to push forward with meat labeling requirements that would protect consumers from eating beef that is contaminated with pathogens like E. coli.

The USDA has been working on the labeling requirements for mechanically-tenderized beef products since 2008, but more than a half dozen health groups and at least one Congresswoman argue that the rules must be finalized by the end of the year so they can go into effect as soon as possible.

The Safe Food Coalition wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE on Monday, calling for swift passage of the rules.

"As you already know, mechanically-tenderized products (such as steaks and roasts) are repeatedly pierced by small needles or blades, thereby increasing the risk that pathogens located on the surface of the product will be transferred to the interior," they wrote.

This mechanically-tenderized treatment is used on less expensive beef products to increase its tenderness, but Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said consumers have no way of knowing which products have been mechanically tenderized.

“These products do not currently have to be labeled so consumers do not know that they are different, present different risks, and require different preparation than whole cuts of beef,” DeLauro wrote in a separate letter to Vilsack.

Mechanically-tenderized beef products for causing five E. coli outbreaks between 2003 and 2009, leading to hundreds of illnesses and at least one death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This comes after Canada recently issued mechanically-tenderized beef labeling requirements following a massive recall of such products in 2012. The health groups point to a Canadian study that found mechanically-tenderized beef is five times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli.

The USDA reports that 88 percent of farms that mechanically tenderize their beef do not do anything to reduce the likelihood of pathogens existing on the meat prior to treatment. While 82 percent of those farms do not even test the finished product for pathogens.

The health groups would also like farms to sanitize their equipment between batches of beef that is being treated with mechanically-tenderized products from different sources.

They accused the USDA of "leaving consumers vulnerable and in the dark for far too long."

The health groups include the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, National Consumers League, and STOP Foodborne Illness.