11/15/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Warnings about beef-tenderizing E.coli risk rare in stores

Where’s the beef label?

Six months after the federal government promised more information about a process that increases the risk of E.coli inside beef steaks and roasts, adding labels that would inform consumers about the process is still voluntary -- and rare on grocery store shelves.

Mechanical tenderization is a common process used to make beef steaks and roasts more tender by piercing the beef with needles or blades. Consumers cannot tell by looking at the beef they are buying whether it has undergone the process.

CBC Marketplace first investigated the process last year and found that tenderizing beef can drive E.coli from the surface of the meat into the centre. In order to reduce the risk of making people ill from E.coli, tenderized beef should be cooked to medium well.

But labels informing consumers to take additional precautions are still pretty rare. Marketplace visited more than 20 stores in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax and found only one store -- a FreshCo in Toronto -- with steaks that had correct labelling.

The full Marketplace investigation, Food Secrets, airs tonight at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television. In the show, co-host Erica Johnson looks at four issues that affect common grocery items.

Process increases food risk

The Marketplace tenderization drove 10 per cent of the E.coli -- which had been applied to the surface of the meat for the sake of the test -- from the surface of meat into the centre of steak.

“When steaks are mechanically tenderized, there is opportunity for organisms from the surface of the steak to be internalized,” University of Manitoba microbiologist Rick Holley told .

An E.coli outbreak caused a large meat recall last year of beef -- including steak -- processed at Alberta’s XL Foods.

“Here we have a situation where steak has caused food-borne illness,” Holley said. “And if things don’t change, we can expect to see this in the future.”

In 2012, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada issued an advisory to consumers about mechanically processed beef. In order to reduce the risk from E.coli, the statement recommended that consumers cook mechanically tenderized beef to a minimum internal temperature of 71 degrees Celsius or 160 degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperature as is recommended for ground beef.

“Health Canada is also actively working with the retail and food industry to support its efforts to identify mechanically tenderized beef for consumers through labels, signage or other means.The industry expects to start putting these measures in place over the next two to three weeks,” the advisory stated.

New rules don’t protect consumers

Last May, Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz announced tougher rules to increase food safety. The new rules included labelling requirements for mechanically tenderized beef.

“Through new labelling requirements Canadian consumers will be provided with important information for certain meat products,” Ritz said. “Federally registered processing plants that produce mechanically tenderized beef cuts such as steaks or roasts will be required to label them as being tenderized.

“In addition, these products will also be labeled with cooking instructions for consumers. These mandatory changes will come into effect July 2 of this year,” he said.

Despite this announcement, current rules only require federally registered meat processing plants to label that beef had undergone the process. Labelling at the consumer level -- the labels that consumers see on meat in grocery stores -- remains voluntary. And few stores appear to be opting to label tenderized meat.

Health Canada says labels coming

Health Canada declined to speak with Marketplace on camera for the story. However, in a statement, a spokesperson indicated that action will be coming next year.

“Health Canada plans to begin consulting with Canadians in the coming months, and the regulatory process for the new labelling requirements for mechanically tenderized beef is expected to be initiated in 2014,” the statement said.

“Currently, Health Canada encourages voluntary labelling of mechanically tenderized beef at the retail level.”