People have been mechanically tenderizing beef for ages – I’m sure you’ve all seen cube steaks in the grocery store with that distinctive odd-looking texture. If it’s a tender cut from the round you’re looking for, there’s nothing wrong with taking a meat mallet, needler, or other mechanical tenderizing system to tougher cuts of beef to make them more tender…but I think needling in a restaurant should be disclosed.
The problem is the beef industry is struggling to meet the low-end restaurant business’s demand for cheap tender steaks. To keep the beef coming, while holding prices down, they’ve taken to needle-tenderizing beef that would otherwise be too tough to serve as a steak. The USDA (so far) doesn’t require them to say when a cut has been tenderized in this way, so most restaurants don’t disclose it.
You’ve probably also all seen the warnings at the bottom of menus telling you that the USDA doesn’t recommend eating undercooked meats. Most people order steaks less than well done anyway, because the inside of a steak is considered essentially sterile, they figure the risk is low.
That’s not the case with needled steaks. As the needles pierce the meat to break up muscle fibers and make it more tender, they can also force bacteria from the surface of the steak (where it would be killed during cooking) deep into the center (where it may survive at lower levels of doneness).
Suddenly your steak might not be safe to eat Medium Rare.
The Kansas City Star published a good article on the subject that I’d recommend reading. Just be aware that there’s a fair amount of meat packer imagery attached that some may find upsetting.
News Flash: According to NPR, the USDA has just proposed requiring mechanical tenderizing be disclosed on packaging. I hope it’ll go through – this is clearly a situation where the industry could use more transparency.