Tests recently conducted by Consumer Reports found that rare or medium-rare ground beef (cooked at under 160° F) pose serious food poisoning health risks for consumers in virtually all cases.
“All meat potentially contains bacteria that—if not destroyed by proper cooking—can cause food poisoning, but some meats are more risky than others,” Consumer Reports states on its website. “Beef, and especially ground beef, has a combination of qualities that can make it particularly problematic—and the consequences of eating tainted beef can be severe.”
The research team tested 300 packages of ground beef products, totaling 458 pounds, purchased at more than 100 grocery, big box stores, and some natural food stores in 26 cities across the U.S. In every single sample, the researchers say they found fecal contamination—e. coli bacteria—which can produce adverse health reactions.
The report points to numerous factors for the contamination, namely that modern slaughter and processing methods are so fast-paced and messy, that feces inside the animals’ intestines can be rather easily transferred into the carcass and the beef products. For whole cuts of beef, such as steaks and roasts, the bacteria are generally found on the surface of the cuts, and die when cooked. But ground beef poses a different set of circumstances, with the bacteria mixed throughout and more difficult to kill, particularly in rare or medium-rare preparations. And another risk factor in ground beef is that it often contains the meat from multiple cows, making it even more difficult to trace the source of contamination.
The report looked specifically at types of beef including conventionally raised and grass fed/pasture raised products. Most of U.S. ground beef comes from conventional farming practices—about 97 percent—which is not only more likely to pose an increased e. coli risk, but also more likely to contain drug-resistant strains of the bacteria, making treatment more difficult.
Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott discusses more on the risk of conventional beef:
Conventionally raised cows start out on grass but spend the final months of their lives on feedlots, where they fatten on diets of corn and soybeans, even though “cows’ digestive systems aren’t designed to easily process high-starch foods such as corn and soy,” creating an acidic environment in the cows’ digestive tract that can “lead to ulcers and infections” and “shed more E. coli in their manure.”
Cows can also be fed candy (yes, candy, including gummy bears and chocolate) to boost their sugar intake, and plastic to replace the fiber from the natural grass diets they’re not fed in conventional cattle farming settings. All of these artificial food sources can disrupt a cow’s digestion, leading to a higher incidence of e. coli in the gut and increasing the risk of contamination. That’s on top of antibiotics and other drugs routinely fed to cattle that can cause digestive issues and also increase the risk of e. coli.
And while all the beef products sampled contained notable levels of bacteria, only six percent of the organic or grass fed beef contained ‘superbugs’—antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Conventional contaminations were twice as likely to contain the drug-resistant harmful bacteria.
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