June 20, 2024

Consumer Reports Finds Salmonella and E. coli in Ground Meats

Is ground meat safe to eat? With all of the recalls and outbreaks linked to those products, many consumers are asking that question. Consumer Reports conducted a study and found that, in many cases, those products are contaminated with dangerous pathogens including Salmonella and E. coli.

Consumer Reports Finds Salmonella and E. coli in Ground Meats

The numbers are alarming. Almost a third of the ground chicken packages they tested were contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. And every single strain was resistant to at least one antibiotic, adding to the fear of the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Consumer Reports also found a strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in a sample of ground beef that was so dangerous they alerted the Department of Agriculture, triggering a recall of more than 28,000 pounds of ground beef.

Ground meats of all types are a leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. Since 2018, there have been eight outbreaks of food poisoning illness linked to ground beef, ground turkey , pork, and Nature’s Pro, that sickened hundreds of people.

James E. Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, who is a former officials at the USDA said, “Right now, preventing illness caused by contaminated meat falls too heavily on the shoulders of consumers, not on industry or regulators. It shouldn’t be that way, and doesn’t have to be.” In fact, Congress has stated pathogens are adulterants only if they would “ordinarily” caused illness. And since it is “typical” that beef is often cooked rare, E. coli is unacceptable in that product, but since it isn’t “typical” that chicken is eaten undercooked, “That may be why salmonella is not considered an adulterant in chicken,” according to CR.

Consumer Reports tested 351 packages of ground beef, chicken, pork, and turkey that they bought at stores throughout the country from December 2021 to January 2022. The samples were assigned a 3-digit code and where shipped to a single laboratory. The temperature of the samples was recorded once received, and verified to be in the acceptable safety range. Contamination was noted, all confirmed isolates were re-tested, and the genome was sequenced using whole genome sequencing (WGS).

Ground meat is inherently more risky than whole cuts such as chicken breasts and roasts, because bacteria on the surface of the meat gets mixed throughout the product when the meat is ground. Then when the ground meat is undercooked, such as in a burger, the bacteria can survive and make someone sick. And, as Rogers pointed out, consumers handle ground meat more than whole cuts, which means more potential for exposure to pathogens and cross-contamination.

While E. coli in ground beef is regulated, the USDA lets poultry processors sell chicken and turkey contaminated with Salmonella. While processors must test for that pathogen, it is allowed in 9.8% of whole birds, 15.4% of parts, and 25% of ground chicken. If a processor exceeds those levels, they are only given a warning and can continue to sell the products.

Nine of the 25 contaminated ground chicken products came from Perdue. Samples from Trader Joe’s and Wholesome Pantry, which source their ground chicken from Perdue, also had positive samples. Other contaminated brands included Walmart, Whole Foods, and Isernio’s. There was no difference in contamination levels between organic chicken and meat from conventionally raised poultry. No single brand was better or worse than the others.

Poultry processors say they are taking steps to reduce Salmonella in their products, as is the USDA. Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, told Consumer Reports, “The results of Consumer Reports’ sampling project underscores why [the agency] is rethinking our existing strategy so that it is more effective in reducing salmonella infections” from poultry. She says the agency is gathering recommendations from independent food safety experts and working with industry to develop pilot projects “to test-drive different control strategies.”

For now, consumers need to take action to protect themselves and their families. You know the drill: purchase meat last when you are shopping, keep it away from other foods in the cart, and go straight home when you’re done. Put the meat in the fridge or freezer immediately and don’t store it above fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination. Use it within two days of purchase or freeze it. Remember that you can’t rely on how the meat looks or smells to tell if it’s contaminated. Thaw frozen meat only in the fridge, never on the counter. Keep ground meats and poultry chilled until you work with them and again, keep them away from other foods. Wash your hands and all kitchen utensils and surfaces with soap and water after handling ground meats. And always cook ground meats to safe final internal temperatures using a reliable meat thermometer.

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