Bacterial contamination is widespread in ground beef, Consumer Reports finds

Nearly one in five samples tested by Consumer Reports – 18 percent – of conventionally produced ground beef carried “superbugs” resistant to multiple antibiotics.

I love a good grilled hamburger as much as anybody, but after reading the results of a Consumer Reports investigation published today I believe I have bought my last ground beef.

CR’s legendary lab tested 300 samples from a wide range of producers and retailers around the country and found bacterial contamination capable of causing human illness in every last one.

It gets worse: Nearly one in five samples – 18 percent – of  conventionally produced ground beef carried “superbugs” resistant to multiple antibiotics.

For you eco-minded shoppers who buy beef labeled as grass-fed, organic, antibiotic-free  or otherwise “sustainable” in CR’s definition, there’s some slight comfort: Superbugs turned up in these samples at only half the rate of conventional beef.

But 9 percent is not nothing. To paraphrase E.B. White, the correct acceptable amount of superbug contamination in my burger is no contamination.

Now I know it’s hardly a revelation that beef in its ground form carries a higher risk of foodborne illness than steaks, roasts and other whole cuts. Mostly this is because of how it’s produced – by mixing meat and trimmings from multiple animals, and distributing any surface contamination throughout the product – but also, in part, because of how it’s typically handled at home.

(Did you scrub under your nails or put on polyethylene gloves before kneading in your spices and shaping your patties? I didn’t think so.)

Nor is it news that most of the bacteria creating this risk can be killed by cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

You may find that appetizing. For me, 160 is acceptable in a meat loaf, but only  barely; for burgers, rare to medium-rare is my guideline at home and medium my grudging upper limit when I dine out and there’s nothing better-looking on the menu.

According to CR, this preference places me in the company of  28 percent of Americans who like ground beef considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be “raw or undercooked.” Happily, it has not yet placed me in the hospital, as it seems to be doing to my fellow Americans with rising frequency:

Patterns of illness

Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 due to tainted beef, sickening 1,144 people, putting 316 in the hospital, and killing five. Ground beef was the source of the majority of those outbreaks. And incidences of food poisoning are vastly underreported.

“For every case of E. coli O157 that we hear about, we estimate that another 26 cases actually occur,” [CDC epidemiologist Hannah] Gould says. She also reports that beef is the fourth most common cause of salmonella outbreaks — one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S. — and for each reported illness caused by that bacteria, an estimated 29 other people are infected.

In its ground beef tests, the CR lab looked for five common types of foodborne bacteria, including salmonella and seven different variants of Escherichia coli.

(Among these was E. coli O157, which CR says “damages the lining of the intestine, often leading to abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, life-threatening kidney damage.” Strain O157:H7 is the strain that led to a Denver producer’s recall last month of 13.5 tons of ground beef and tenderized steak products, apparently before any of it made anybody really sick.)

Rounding out the list were Clostridium perfringens, Enterococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. Key findings:

  • All of the samples contained either Enterococcus or a strain of E. coli, which signal fecal contamination and can cause infections in the urinary tract or bloodstream.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the samples were contaminated with C. perfringens, which CR says is causing a million U.S. cases of food poisoning each year.
  • Ten percent had a strain of S. aureus that can produce an illness-inducing toxin which even cooking to 160 degrees can’t destroy.
  • As for the “superbugs” found in 18 percent of conventional ground beef samples, and 9 percent of the “sustainable” group, those were strains of S. aureus or E. coli determined in subsequent CR tests to resist to three or more classes of antibiotics important to treating infections in people.

·       Only 1 percent of the samples carried salmonella. But as CR’s director of food safety and sustainability, Urvashi Rangan, noted, 1 percent multiplied by the 4.6 billion pounds of ground beef consumed in the U.S. last year is “a lot of burgers with the potential to make you sick.” In an average year, CR says, 1.2 million people get sick and 450 die from salmonella (that’s from all sources, not just ground beef).

Policy and personal recommendations

CR has a number of policy recommendations to offer, starting with reforms in our system of meat production and inspection to eliminate a wide range of unwholesome practices and promote earlier detections of problems. (These don’t get much attention in the magazine article but are covered at length in an accompanying report, which I don’t recommend you read with a queasy  stomach.)

For consumers, though, the options CR offers are limited to 1) buying your ground beef from sustainable producers, 2) cooking everything to a minimum of 160 degrees, or 3) eating something else entirely.

In support of the first option, CR’s full report offers some eye-opening guidance to labeling mischief, classifying common logos and branding terms into four categories from “highly meaningful” to “not meaningful” (with beef marked “natural” in the last tier; CR is campaigning to ban that usage from the marketplace).

Shifting to sustainable beef is a way to cast your vote for many positive things environmentally as well as for better personal health, but with just 3 percent of today’s ground beef coming from such sources, it’s not clear this can make a big difference anytime soon.

As for changes in cooking practice, CR offers four tested ways of bringing a burger to 160 degrees while keeping it tasty, including the newly rediscovered and trendy sous vide approach. None of the results looked very appealing to this cook except perhaps the ultraslow sous vide, for which I currently lack time, patience and interest.

Giving up beef for other foods is a good idea for many reasons, and like Americans generally, I’ve been eating less of it in recent years. U.S. consumption is down to 50 pounds per capita now, CR reports, and I think mine is probably half that.

However, the ground beef share of Americans’ beef purchases has been climbing – from 42 percent a decade ago to 50 percent now – and CR has shown that to be a less than healthy trend.

A  fourth way, maybe

Three glum alternatives, those, but as I pondered them I hit upon a fourth that I’m surprised CR didn’t seem to consider: Grind your own!

I’ve done this routinely when making meat loaves of beef/pork/lamb, or trying out fancy chili variations or making artisan sausages, and the time/trouble factor is minimal with either a hand-cranked or electric model.

Provided the home-ground beef is handled carefully and cooked right away, it should carry no more contamination risk than the whole cut(s) it’s made from. (Here’s Sunset magazine’s take on the question, including a tip on a quick blanching to kill surface germs.)

Depending on the cut you start with and how carefully you trim it, the overall quality could be higher and the fat content lower than the best beef you can buy pre-ground. It might even be cheaper.

Anyway, I sent a query about this to CR but haven’t heard back yet; if I do, I’ll post an update. Meanwhile I’m putting a nice piece of chuck or arm roast on this week’s grocery list, along with some good buns.

I’ve bought my last ground beef, people, but that doesn’t have to mean I’ve grilled my last burger.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Jim Odden on 08/25/2015 - 11:36 am.

    Ground beef

    I assume the same is true for chicken and turkey burger. Should we not be irradiating to solve this problem?

    I, for one, am not afraid of glowing in the dark!

  2. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 08/25/2015 - 01:34 pm.

    eco-minded

    “For you eco-minded shoppers who buy beef labeled as grass-fed, organic, antibiotic-free or otherwise “sustainable” in CR’s definition, there’s some slight comfort: Superbugs turned up in these samples at only half the rate of conventional beef.” Keep in mind that just because it is labeled grass-fed doesn’t mean it hasn’t been fed corn or been in a feedlot at some point in it’s life. Another thing to keep in mind that antibiotic-free would mean that the animals were potentially made to suffer through illness with no medication. Also, organic foods have been responsible for more food born illnesses than conventional foods so organic would seem to be a higher risk.

    “For me, 160 is acceptable in a meat loaf, but only barely; for burgers, rare to medium-rare is my guideline at home ” I think I’ll pass on your dinner invitation. I have not met a single other person my whole life that would eat a rare burger and I think you might be stretching the truth a little here as well. If you are getting sick from eating ground meat this way I do not feel one bit bad for you nor do I feel the blame should be on anything other than yourself for getting sick.

    “Shifting to sustainable beef is a way to cast your vote for many positive things environmentally as well as for better personal health, but with just 3 percent of today’s ground beef coming from such sources, it’s not clear this can make a big difference anytime soon.” What exactly is this Ron? Can you define what “sustainable” is? It is a well known fact (I have posted a link to proof in one of my previous comments) that pasture raised beef releases more greenhouse gasses and uses a higher amount of water and resources.

    “Provided the home-ground beef is handled carefully and cooked right away, it should carry no more contamination risk than the whole cut(s) it’s made from. ” This is categorically false. Grinding your own beef carries a higher risk regardless of the amount of contamination of the whole cut because of the lack of cleanliness of the grinder.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 08/25/2015 - 04:02 pm.

      Assume much?

      I don’t know about you, but I completely dissassemble my grinder, wipe each of the component parts free of meat residue and wash ALL surfaces in hot soapy water after every use. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in taking that kind of care.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 08/25/2015 - 04:29 pm.

      REJECT WN: PERSONAL Then you haven’t met many people, Joe.

      I eat freshly ground medium rare burgers all the time. And when I lived in Wisconsin, many people still eat rare ground beef on rye crackers with a slice of onion. It’s extremely common and has been for decades. I grind my own (organic) beef and thoroughly clean my grinder after every use.

      • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 08/26/2015 - 11:36 am.

        assuming

        Like I said previously, I won’t feel a bit bad or blame anyone other than you for getting sick from undercooked ground beef. There is yet another reason I won’t set foot in Wisconsin.

        As far as my assumption goes, it is a pretty safe assumption since regulations for cleaning grinding equipment for commercial producers exist while none exist for the average joe. Cleaning is going to be better at the commercial level than it is at the home level. I am sure some homeowners do very well cleaning their equipment but since there are no regulations for cleaning for the homeowner the risk factor for contamination rises significantly.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/25/2015 - 02:56 pm.

    Rare burger?

    Well, that’s a folly. It’s long been known that ground meats have a much higher contamination risk than whole cuts (you take what’s outside and transfer it inside over and over and over again, and then you store it…), so this news really isn’t new. Go ahead and eat your steak rare or mid rare–you can sear the crap out of the outside to kill off the bugs and still have a relatively cool interior. Unless there was something grossly wrong with the cow before it was slaughtered (or someone intentionally introduced something to the interior of the meat), it’s pretty safe. Even pork is fairly safe without cooking it too well, as long as you used a whole cut.

    As for how much safer “sustainable” meats are, I have my doubts. Odds are that the relative safety right now is due to processing chains rather than the meat source. That is, the lower volume of such meats facilitates the cleanliness of the processing chain, as that’s where the bacteria is most likely introduced (hence the relative safety of whole cuts). So, it’s not the organic beef, it’s the sloppy cleaning the facilities that do the grinding. Like your local grocery store that is not a co-op. I agree that more attention needs to be paid to this problem, and there needs to be stricter enforcement on cleanliness in processing facilities. But, I’m pretty sure that Consumer Reports came to the wrong conclusion on this one.

    All of this sounds scary, and we do need to do more to prevent the development of “superbugs” and prevent their spread. But, really, being a smart consumer means also being at least partly responsible for your own health. Cook the burger! Food doesn’t come sterile, and it would be a bad thing if it did.

  4. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/25/2015 - 03:57 pm.

    Unsubstantiated

    “Also, organic foods have been responsible for more food born illnesses than conventional foods so organic would seem to be a higher risk.”

    Please provide any evidence at all that this statement is true.

    None of my own research turns up anything close to a majority of cases coming from Certified Organic food.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 08/26/2015 - 11:40 am.

      statement

      USDA and/or FDA would have this information for you. Many more cases of food poisoning have occurred from organic foods than from conventional foods likely due to the nature of the fertilizer used on them.

      • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 08/27/2015 - 08:43 am.

        It is not my job to back up your claim.

        Your attempts at discrediting Organic Agriculture are getting tiresome. You’ve not given a single iota of evidence that anything you claim is true.

        • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/01/2015 - 12:01 pm.

          tiresome

          It’s also tiresome to have posted the evidence in my comments previously and have them ignored. The proof is there for anyone to see without much work.

          • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/01/2015 - 03:13 pm.

            also

            A quick google search also yields more supporting evidence to the danger of organic foods. It really isn’t hard to find at all with any effort.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/25/2015 - 05:25 pm.

    An Old Fashioned Butcher

    They may be hard to find, but it’s also possible to get to know an old fashioned butcher,…

    whose sources, means and methods you can verify,…

    who would be willing to grind only whole cuts of meat for you,…

    meat from local farmers whose methods you can also verify,…

    in order to minimize the chance that your ground beef contains contaminated trimmings and scrapings from who knows where in the animal,…

    or the produce plant of the type of meat manufacturer who produces endless quantities,…

    of ground whatever.

    At least that’s possible out here in rural Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/26/2015 - 09:30 am.

    Consumer reports duplicate long standing research findings

    Legendary Lab? CR didn’t even need a laboratory, you can just look this up if you want to. The MN Dept. of health lab runs these test on a regular basis and numerous peer reviewed studies, some of which were authored by world renowned experts right here at home, Mike Osterholm, Kirk Smith, Carlota Medus, et al have been publishing these results for decades. (Disclosure: My wife is an Epidemiologist at MN Dept. of Health)

    These pathogens are ubiquitous, and are routinely found by routine testing by the USDA, regardless of “organic”, “local”, etc. farming trends or methods. This has been known for decades. Salmonella is even found INSIDE eggs, transferred there via a chickens ovaries.

    Get a food thermometer, cook your meat to at least 165 F, temp it in several locations. Wash your preparation surfaces, and you hands, often times people kill the pathogen in the food only to transfer live pathogens back onto their food with contaminated hands, utensils, etc. Or people cook the meat but transfer the pathogen to other food via contaminated hands, prep surfaces, and utensils.

    And it’s not just meat, these pathogens can be found on vegi’s as well, a lot of outbreaks are connected to vegi’s because they’re frequently served un-cooked.

    The problem is that these pathogens aren’t classified as adulterants, because they’re naturally occurring. Whenever someone tries to establish limits of some kind industry and farmers push back pointing out that they’re not introducing the pathogens, and anyways if people cook the food properly it’s not a problem.

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