Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Consumer Reports Ground Meat Report - Hype versus True Risk

Consumer reports released a study of pathogenic bacteria found in ground beef titled – How Safe Is Your Ground Beef . The tag line – “If you don’t know how the ground beef you eat was raised, you may be putting yourself at higher risk of illness from dangerous bacteria. You okay with that?”

So Consumer Reports bought 300 packages of ground meat and tested for E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), enterococcus, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus. Plus they tested for antibiotic resistance.
Results –
· All samples contained indicator organisms – enterococcus and generic E. coli.
· C. perfringens – 20 percent of the samples.
· S. aureus – 10 percent of the samples
· Salmonella – 1 percent
· Beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, than beef from sustainably raised cows. 18 percent of conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs—the dangerous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—compared with just 9 percent of beef from samples that were sustainably produced.
· The rest of the article goes on to state why they believe sustainably produced is safer than conventional.

Agree – there are pathogens, namely Salmonella and STEC E. coli, that can be present in meat, and when that meat is ground, these pathogens are distributed throughout. So if you undercook ground meat (aka rare or medium rare), the pathogens, if present, can survive and then may cause illness. So it is important to cook ground meat to 160ºF. and of course, verify with a thermometer.

The fact that ALL samples contained enterococcus and generic E. coli shows that ground meat is not sterile and because the indicators are present, we know that there is always the likelihood of pathogens being present. But it is important to point out, there was a very low levels of Salmonella and that no pathogenic E. coli were able to be isolated from their samples.

The study also looked at the prevalence (absence vs presence) for S. aureus and C. perfrigens as a indicator of safety.   First, these organisms only cause illness when the numbers are exceedingly high, so just being present is not as important as the number. These organisms are commonly found in the environment and in food at low numbers that have no health effect. Humans have a high prevalence of S. aureus in their nasal passage and C. perfringens in their intestines.

The antibiotic resistance numbers were not clear cut in that there are many variables. This is not anything different than has been found before.   However, the prevalence of the two most important pathogens in beef related illnesses (STEC E.coli and Salmonella) were too low, so nothing could be said with regard to that.   And there was no differentiation on which antibiotics (those used for humans, those used for animals, and those not really used).   

Unlike studies that are published in peer-reviewed journals, this study is not peer reviewed.  Also, it would have been better to look at numbers for S. aureus and C. perfringens rather than prevalence.

The other issue is determining what is more sustainable....that is, what provides the lowest carbon footprint while being able to feed a growing population.

Take home– if you want to buy organic or grass fed beef because you think it tastes better, great....if you are willing and able to pay the higher price.  But saying it is safer based upon these results may be more hype than true risk.  But of course the main stream media will push the hype.

Regardless, it is important to cook ground meat to the proper temperature and to handle it properly.

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