October 25, 2016

The Risks of Rare Ground Beef: Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports has released a new report about the risks of eating undercooked ground beef. Their new test results prove that eating rare or medium-rare ground beef can make you seriously sick. Up to 28% of Americans eat raw or undercooked ground beef, according to Dr. Hannah Gould, epidemiologist at the CDC.

skylers hamburgerAll meat is contaminated with some pathogenic bacteria, most commonly Enterococcus, E. Coli, or Staphylococcus. When beef is ground, that bacteria on the surface of the beef cuts is mixed all through the product. And then when the ground beef is not cooked to well done, or 165°F, you run the risk of getting sick.

Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to contaminated beef. Those outbreaks sickened 1,144 people, hospitalized 316, and killed five. Ground beef was the source of most of those outbreaks. Last year, an E. coli O157 outbreak linked to Wolverine Packing ground beef sickened at least 11 people.

Most ground beef produced in the U.S. has another risk factor: the meat and trimmings come from more than one cow, so if the meat from one animal is contaminated with E. coli, many pounds of ground beef can be contaminated.

In addition, consumer handling of ground beef is problematic. When you mix ground beef with other ingredients, and form hamburger patties or meatloaf, your hands will be contaminated. Unless you wash thoroughly and very carefully immediately afterward, your hands can be contaminated; that will contaminate every surface you touch. Cross-contamination between raw ground beef and utensils, work surfaces, and other foods is an issue as well.

So Consumer Reports decided to test for bacteria in ground beef. They purchased 300 packages from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 U.S. cities. All types of ground beef were purchased: conventional, organic, and sustainable. They then analyzed for five common bacteria; Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, Enterococcus, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus.

All 458 pounds of beef they tested had bacteria that indicated fecal contamination. Sixty percent of samples had E. coli. Almost 20% contained C. perfringens. And 10% of the beef had S. aureus bacteria that produce a toxin that cannot be destroyed by cooking. One percent had Salmonella. And 18% of conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics.

Appalling conditions at feedlots aren’t helping. The average feedlot in the U.S. has more than 4,000 head of cattle crammed into small areas. The cattle often stand in their own waste, which stresses them, making them more susceptible to disease.

Consumer Reports recommends that you buy “grass-fed organic beef” whenever you can. Those animals need fewer antibiotics to treat disease, they are raised without confinement, and they aren’t fed antibiotics at a sub-therapeutic level for growth promotion or to prevent illness.

And cook your burgers well done!

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