Consumer Reports points to bacteria in ground beef, while USDA and other groups deny danger

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2015 - A new study from Consumer Reports (CR), the organization known for investigating and rating all sorts of consumer goods from cars to countertops, found high levels of what they deemed “dangerous” strains of bacteria in American ground beef. But federal officials and trade associations deny the danger.

CR's study examined 458 pounds of ground beef purchased from 26 metropolitan retail food outlets around the country and found that almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacterium responsible for nearly 1 million food poisoning cases annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Another 10 percent were infected with a strain of S. aureus, which produces a toxin that the CDC says is resistant to heat and cannot be destroyed through cooking.

And while none of the samples contained what is considered “highly pathogenic” Shiga-toxin producing E. coli - the bacteria that “have the most public health significance,” according to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) - 1 percent of the samples harbored Salmonella, which is responsible for approximately 1 million illnesses and 380 deaths a year.

The CR researchers also found another, more potent strain of S. aureus called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), an antibiotic resistant bacterium that kills about 11,000 U.S. residents annually, on three samples of “conventionally raised” type beef, which constituted just over half of all the beef samples. MRSA was not detected on any of the “sustainably raised” beef samples that, by CR's definition, came from some combination of organic, grass-fed, or antibiotic-free cattle.

Most importantly, CR's researchers said, the conventional beef was 200 percent more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria than sustainably produced beef.

“We know that sustainable methods are better for the environment and more humane to animals. But our tests also show that these methods can produce ground beef that poses fewer public health risks,” said chief researcher Urvashi Rangan, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at CR.

Kristen Felicione, a public affairs specialist for FSIS, told Agri-Pulse  “FSIS conducts inspections at all establishments that produce meat products and verifies that they are safe and not adulterated through a variety of inspection activities.” These evaluations include testing ground beef for pathogenic and relatively less toxic bacteria, not unlike the CR study.

It is illegal for a slaughter facility to operate without federal food safety inspectors present, Felicione continued, and it is up to the consumer to ensure that ground beef is not consumed raw or undercooked.

“To be sure all bacteria are destroyed,” cook ground beef “to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees (Fahrenheit),” she said. Poultry should be cooked to a slightly higher temperature (165 degrees) while steaks and fresh pork can be a bit lower (145 degrees), the government says.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) released a statement following the CR report. “No reported findings of highly pathogenic E. coli or salmonella suggest ground beef is as safe as ever,” NAMI's release said.

The meat processor and supplier trade association said the bacteria found by CR “are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria” and “rarely cause foodborne illness.”

Additionally, truly dangerous Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli are found in less than 1 percent of ground beef products, NAMI argued, and any product that tests positive for the bacteria doesn't enter the marketplace.

Speaking in a release on the Facts about Beef website funded through the Beef Checkoff, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) officials also stood by the integrity of U.S. ground beef.

The “organic” and “grass-fed” USDA labels are not indicators of sustainability or safety, the release noted, and ultimately, the CR report did identify bacteria in the organic and grass-fed samples. CR's report also “misleads consumers into thinking that organic and/or grass-fed beef is safer” than conventional beef, the release said.

Facts about Beef also took issue with the way CR used the term “sustainable,” calling the usage “incorrect and misleading.”

“All beef production models can be sustainable,” said Kim Stackhouse, NCBA's executive director of sustainability. “Beef sustainability is defined as producing more product with fewer inputs, which is the goal of every beef producer in this country.”

There are also trade-offs between production methods when it comes to greenhouse emissions that the CR report failed to consider, the release continued. For instance, grass-finished beef have a 15 to 30 percent larger carbon footprint than grain-finished beef “because of the increased methane cattle produce on a grass diet and because they take a much longer time to reach slaughter weight,” it claimed.

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Story updated at 1:30pm EDT to include comment from NCBA. 

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