Consumer Reports finds contaminated ground beef as industry responds

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Consumer Reports has raised questions on the safety of ground beef
Consumer Reports has raised questions on the safety of ground beef

Related tags E. coli Ground beef Bacteria Antibiotic resistance

Consumer Reports has found bacteria on all raw ground beef samples tested adding grass-fed or organic meat is safer than conventional, while an industry group has said the findings show “ground beef is as safe as ever”.

The consumer organization purchased 300 packages—a total of 458 pounds—from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities in the USA.

It analyzed the samples for five types of bacteria—Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), Enterococcus, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus.

All 458 pounds of beef contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli).

Almost 20% contained C. perfringens and 10% of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria.

In our tests, we did not determine the quantity of S. aureus that was present, so we are unable to say whether any samples contained enough to make a person sick,”said the group​.

“We tested the C. perfringens we found for the gene that would allow them to make the toxin CPE, which is associated with food poisoning caused by this bacterium, but none of the isolates had the enterotoxin gene.”

NAMI: Ground beef safe

However, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said the bacteria rarely cause foodborne illness and are instead found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria.

“The real headline here is the bacteria that Consumer Reports doesn’t report finding in their testing -- Shiga toxin-producing E. coliand just 1% of samples with Salmonella, a number far below USDA performance standards, which are the foodborne bacteria of greatest public health concern in beef,”​ said Betsy Booren, North American Meat Institute Vice President of Scientific Affairs.

“Bacteria occur naturally on all raw food products from beef to blueberries so finding certain types on some foods in a grocery store is not surprising and should not be concerning.

“As an industry, our number one priority is producing the safest meat and poultry possible and this is done by focusing attention on bacteria which are most likely to make people sick, particularly Shiga toxin-producing E. coli​ and Salmonella.”

It said the most important recommendation from the group was to cook ground beef to a temperature of 160° F measured with a meat  thermometer.

‘Sustainably produced’

Consumer Reports classified beef as being more sustainably produced if it had one or more of the following characteristics: no antibiotics, organic, or grass-fed.

All meat potentially contains bacteria that—if not destroyed by proper cooking—can cause food poisoning, but some meats are more risky than others, such as ground beef.

It put the bacteria found through testing to see whether they were resistant to antibiotics in the same classes commonly used to treat infections in people.

It compared the results of samples from conventionally raised beef with the sustainably raised beef to see whether there were differences in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Conventional samples were more likely to be contaminated with S. aureus or E. coli than more sustainably produced samples and conventional samples were more than twice as likely as more sustainably produced ones to be contaminated with bacteria resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics, claimed Consumer Reports.

“3 MRSA (methicillin-resistant S. aureus) were found on conventional samples, but none were found on the more sustainably produced samples,”​ said the group.

“Grass-fed samples that we verified to be produced without antibiotics had three times lower likelihood of containing multidrug-resistant bacteria (6%) compared with conventional samples (18%).”

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation said uncooked meat isn’t safe to eat, regardless of how it was raised, and there is no difference in safety between organic and conventionally raised burgers.

“Consumer Reports doesn’t include citations or references for any of its assumptions or categorizations,”wrote Liz Caselli-Mechael​ for the group which describes its aim as being to effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety.

“It doesn’t use peer-reviewed methodology, and it provides no sharing of raw data that would allow independent review of their findings. They don’t show their criteria for bacterial contamination, or categorizing different types of meat production.”

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