Meat that has been artificially tenderised can be put on sale without any legal obligation to inform customers. 'Fork tender' steak may indeed be a patiently matured piece of prime meat; but it may instead be an inferior cut - and the consumer will be none the wiser.
The only natural way to achieve tender meat is to hang it for up to three weeks. But this maturing process takes up space, and cash is tied up. As it ages, the meat loses weight, and its exterior, which darkens with exposure to air, has to be trimmed off, resulting in an estimated further 7 per cent weight loss.
Meat-tenderising machines, however, allow the butcher to avoid hanging at the same time as offering butter-soft cuts of meat. How?
Tenderising machines originated in the United States, and the cruder ones have been on the market since the Fifties. In essence, they offer a semi-mincing procedure whereby a number of fine needles are passed through meat to break down its fibres. The older machines left fairly obvious holes; the new models do not.
The latest of these, the Jaccard, has 544 closely spaced blades that cut the meat's connective tissue. 'In less than a minute, it can tenderise any boneless prime cut of meat, without any stretching, distortion, loss of colour or weight,' the ad for the machine declares. 'In fact, your meat looks completely untouched . . . No amount of hanging would enable you to fry shin (a cheap knee cut) and have it eat as tender as rump.' So far 170 village and catering butchers in Britain have signed up for one, the ad says, including members of the prestigious butcher's 'Q' (for Quality) Guild.
I suggested to Sharon Sault, owner of the British company that imports the Jaccard, that the machines might encourage butchers to mask inferior-quality meat. She said this was not the case. 'We advise butchers to tell their customers that the meat has been mechanically tenderised. When we say that you can tenderise shin and have it eat like a frying steak, we use this in our demonstrations to show that the machine works. But we certainly don't advise that butchers do that. We think that the vast majority of our machines are being used responsibly.'
The machines were introduced into Britain by supermarkets. Safeway, however, says that it does not use them. And Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer say that, though some type of mechanical tenderiser is employed, it is only for 'flash' steak. All three emphasise that such steaks come from a good-quality cut - silverside - and so they do not indicate on the label that the meat has been tenderised.
Though the use of tenderisers is thought to be heaviest among butchers who supply restaurants, canteens, schools and hospitals, Jaccard is the first such machine that has been affordable by smaller butchers. I asked the Meat and Livestock Commission about the legal position. It confirmed that a butcher is not obliged to say that he uses a tenderiser. 'The MLC looks on these machines reasonably positively, as they can increase the juiciness and tenderness of meat,' said MLC spokesman Phil Saunders.
Cattle used to be injected, just before slaughter, with a muscle relaxant known as Proten, which helped to keep the meat tender, no matter how the animal had been mishandled. But these injections were banned by the EC in January. And it is since then, Ms Sault admits, that she has made many of her machine sales. But David Craig, chairman of the 'Q' Guild, does not approve of the machines. 'I wouldn't give them space in my shop,' he says. 'Good meat is a whole process of careful handling from field to plate. The 'Q' Guild cannot endorse any short-cuts to quality meat.'
And what about food hygiene? Professor Richard Lacey, head of clinical microbiology at Leeds University and an authority on food safety, says: 'Tenderising is a procedure similar to mincing, but more dangerous. With unmanipulated meat, harmful bacteria are on the surface, and will normally be destroyed by cooking. The blades on a tenderising machine are bound to transfer these surface bacteria to the centre, where they are much harder to kill off.'
So unlike mince, which will begin to smell and discolour with age, 'tenderised' meat may look fine, and consumers may leave it in the fridge for several days, unaware that bacteria may be growing deep within.
The MLC believes meat tenderisers are safe. Research on bacterial counts in 1977 and 1979 'found that the surface, anaerobic and all internal bacteria counts were not affected by tenderising', Mr Saunders says. And Ms Sault says that machines such as the Jaccard have been well tested in the US, but she was unable to confirm whether they had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. 'They are safe as long as butchers use the correct sterilisation, either dish-washing or soaking overnight in a Milton-type solution,' she says. 'They should be cleaned about two or three times a day.'
Do you trust your butcher to tenderise only prime cuts, and to sterilise his machine zealously two or three times a day? I don't. Next time you buy meat with a tag such as 'flash', 'frying', 'stir-fry', 'casserole' or 'minute', ask your butcher to explain what cut it comes from, and why it is guaranteed to be tender.
Last week, Joanna Blythman won the media award from The Caroline Walker Trust, set up 'For the improvement of public health by means of good food'.