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Consumer Reports’ Tests: Conventional Ground Beef Twice As Likely To Contain Superbugs As Sustainable Beef

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Last updated on June 14th, 2024 at 10:09 am

In Consumer Reports new tests of ground beef, 18 percent of the beef samples from conventionally-raised cows contained dangerous superbugs resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics used to treat illness in humans compared with just 9 percent of beef from samples that were sustainably produced.

Consumer Reports’ investigation comes as food poisonings are striking an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year with beef being a top cause of outbreaks. Compounding the issue, Americans often prefer their beef on the rare side. The grinding process used to produce ground beef can distribute bacteria throughout the meat and, if it’s not cooked properly through to the center, the potential for getting sick increases.Consumer Reports Logo (PRNewsFoto/Consumer Reports)

The full article, “How Safe is Your Beef,” which includes the complete test findings, food labels to look for when shopping for beef and more, is available at ConsumerReports.org/cro/beefsafety and in the October issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands Sept. 3.

For its investigation, Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages—458 pounds—of conventionally and sustainably produced ground beef from grocery, big-box and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. The samples were tested for five common types of bacteria associated with beef—Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), Enterococcus, Salmonella as well as Staphylococcus aureus.

This testing, which is among the largest conducted to date, found bacteria on all of the beef samples. However, ground beef from cows raised more sustainably was significantly less likely to have two potentially harmful bacteria (S. aureus and E.coli) than those from cows raised conventionally. In the analysis, the sustainably-produced beef came from cows that were raised without antibiotics and in some cases were either organic, grass-fed or both. Beef from grass-fed and organic cows have access to pasture, are fed a grass-based diet and are treated more humanely. Conventional cows can live on feedlots, be regularly fed antibiotics as well as animal waste and other by-products.

“Better ways of producing beef from farm to fork have real impact on the health and safety of our food and the animals themselves,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Farming animals without antibiotics is the first step toward a more sustainable system. Grass-fed animals and good welfare practices produce fewer public health risks.”

Other findings from Consumer Reports tests include:

• More than 80 percent of the conventional beef samples contained two types of bacteria.

• Nearly 20 percent of the beef samples contained C. perfringens, bacteria that causes almost a million cases of food poisoning annually.

• Ten percent of the beef samples contained a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make people sick—and cannot be destroyed even with proper cooking.

Consumer Reports’ findings demonstrate that there are better choices for consumers and sustainable options were available in all but one city in which the beef samples used for testing were purchased. Consumers should read labels to guide their purchases. Meaningful labels include “no antibiotics,” “grass-fed,” “organic” and “American Grassfed Association.” Among the best options to choose are beef products labeled “grass-fed organic,” which ensures the cattle have not been fed grain and eat only organically grown grass and forage and have not received any antibiotics or hormones, according to Consumer Reports, adding that there also are meaningful animal welfare labels available to consumers.

No matter what ground beef consumers buy, cooking it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit should kill harmful bacteria. Meat should be stored properly before and after cooking since bacteria can multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees. If you’re reheating leftover burgers or a casserole with ground beef, get it to 165 degrees.

Consumer Reports says the federal government needs to take action to help protect public health and is urging the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture to do the following:

• Ban the use of daily antibiotics in healthy animals.

• Ensure that meaningful labels are not undermined by labels like “natural,” which have nothing to do with how animals are raised, what they ate or if they were confined.

• Adopt recommendations to expand animal welfare standards for organic beef.

• Beef up inspections, including having an inspector at every slaughter and processing plant.

• Ban the sale of beef containing disease-causing, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella and prohibit chicken waste in cattle feed.

Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association respond

The Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has said the following in response to the Consumer Reports study.

“Because the story could lead to questions from your customers, we want to share the facts about ground beef safety, and offer resources for you and your customers looking to learn more.

The Facts:

This report will not help consumers when purchasing safe ground beef.

  • The bacteria found in the Consumer Reports tests are not the type of bacteria commonly associated with foodborne illness in ground beef. The primary pathogens of concern in raw ground beef are Salmonella and STEC. These bacteria are not reported in their findings.
  • Bacteria are naturally found in the environment and in all food. Some of that bacteria, such as some types of Enterococci, are actually beneficial like probiotics in yogurt.
  • As an industry, our number one priority is producing the safest beef possible and this is done by focusing attention on bacteria which are most likely to make people sick, particularly E. coli O157:H7 and other shiga-toxin producing E. coli. It is telling that Consumer Reports did not highlight finding these bacteria on products they tested which is a strong indication of the overall safety of beef.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection personnel are present daily in every federally inspected meat plant to ensure the plants comply with federal food safety regulations and to make sure processes are in place to keep our meat supply safe.  Even with these safety precautions, the only helpful takeaway from the report is that all ground beef should be cooked to and internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit and confirmed with an instant-read meat thermometer, as recommended by USDA.

Our beef supply is very safe and getting safer.

  • Ground beef is the safest it has ever been, with greater than 90 percent reductions in bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 and STEC and significant reductions in salmonella in recent years.
  • Cattle farmers and ranchers are committed to safety and have invested more than $35 million since 1993 in safety research programs. The industry as a whole invests approximately $550 million annually in beef safety research and technology implementation.

‘Organic,’ ‘natural’ and ‘grass-fed’ are marketing terms that are not an accurate indicator of either sustainability or safety.

  • All beef in the United States is subject to the same stringent government regulations and inspection procedures that ensure safety. While beef farmers and ranchers provide a range of different products that consumers demand, safety is the common denominator among every kind of beef you buy.
  • Bacteria, like E. coli, are found naturally in the environment and in the intestinal tracts of healthy animals whether in a feedyard or grazing on pasture. Research to date has not found a significant difference in the likelihood of cattle to carry E. coli between those on pasture or in feedyards.”

*Editor’s note: Funding for Consumer Reports’ project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

About the author

Shelby Team

The Shelby Report delivers complete grocery news and supermarket insights nationwide through the distribution of five monthly regional print and digital editions. Serving the retail food trade since 1967, The Shelby Report is “Region Wise. Nationwide.”

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