A new labeling rule that food safety advocates say could prevent illnesses and save lives appears to be mired in White House bureaucracy.
The proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require labels on steaks and other beef products that have been mechanically tenderized, a process using automated needles or knives that can drive deadly pathogens deep into the interior of the meat.
Those pathogens can survive and cause illnesses if consumers fail to cook the cuts thoroughly.
The proposed regulation has been under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget since September 2012. In December, OMB extended its review for an undetermined period.
An official at the budget office, which reviews the cost of implementing such proposed regulations, said last week that the agency does not comment on rules under review.
And others pushing the proposal, including a U.S. senator, said they have not been told a reason for the delay.
But food safety groups have been asking for labels on such products since 2009, and they say the extended review unnecessarily leaves consumers at risk.
"A disturbing pattern has developed with the Obama administration to drag its feet to implement food safety regulations," said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist and food safety expert with Food & Water Watch. "...It seems that a new policy to label mechanically tenderized meat -- that is a no-brainer to us -- has fallen into that same black hole."
A series of stories published in December in The Kansas City Star profiled several people who became ill from E. coli poisoning after eating medium rare, mechanically tenderized steaks at restaurants.
The stories noted that food safety advocates believe there could be many victims of eating "bladed" beef, but it's difficult to determine exactly how many because the products are not required to be labeled when sold to restaurants and grocery stores.
Some retailers, such as Costco, voluntarily label products that are mechanically tenderized, but an Agriculture Department survey says most producers do not.
The Star's series, "Beef's Raw Edges," also noted that more than 90 percent of beef producers use the process on some beef cuts. There have been several USDA recalls of the products since at least 2000, and a Canadian recall last October included mechanically tenderized steaks imported into the United States.
The American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, said in 2009 that mechanically tenderized steaks are comparable in safety to other steaks, adding that "we don't believe that special labeling declaring the mechanical tenderization process will provide meaningful or actionable information to consumers."
American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley told The Star in December that although that was the correct position at the time, information filed by the USDA that backs up the pending labeling proposal would prompt a "careful review and, possibly, a change" in position by the meat industry.
That information remains unavailable during the Office of Management and Budget review, however.
The Star's stories prompted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to ask the Office of Management and Budget to expedite the review process.
"Currently, consumers are largely unaware that this risk exists, and many consumers do not routinely cook beef cuts such as steaks well enough to eliminate such pathogens," Gillibrand said in her December letter to the office.
"...You should make every effort to expedite the release of this proposed labeling rule in order to inform consumers about potential and serious risks of food-borne illness," Gillibrand added.
A spokeswoman for the senator said last week that her office still has not heard back from the Office of Management and Budget.
"I hope OMB will release the labeling rule soon, as I believe public health protections should be given priority," Gillibrand said last week.
She added that soon she will be again introducing a bill to modernize the meat and poultry food safety system.
"One of the many great provisions in this bill will give USDA the ability to set new labeling requirements more quickly when it is necessary to protect public health," Gillibrand said.
Corbo noted that even if the Office of Management and Budget were to release the rule now, it could not be in place before the next barbecue and grilling season.
"Even if it got published tomorrow, there will be at least a 60-day comment period for the public to weigh in," he said.
And after that, the USDA could hold up the rule for changes based on those comments.
Pat Buck, who co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness, Research and Prevention after her 2-year-old grandson, Kevin, died from eating E. coli-contaminated ground beef, was among the earliest advocates for labeling mechanically tenderized meat.
"We would like to get it pulled out of OMB as soon as possible," Buck said last week.
But she said that as long as it is there, the proposal and all the background information supporting it remain unavailable to the public.
She said food safety groups are involved in discussions now about how to expedite the Office of Management and Budget process.
But in the meantime, she said, consumers should be wary of any whole beef cuts they purchase and should cook them to 160 degrees, or order them cooked thoroughly, especially if they are intended for higher-risk consumers, including young people, elderly people and other at-risk groups such as cancer patients.