Bacteria in Your Burger: Consumer Reports Releases Ground Beef Test Results
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August 25, 2015

If you haven't heard the news yet, we're sorry to break it to you, but your burger probably has poop in it. Well, let's clarify. It likely contains bacteria, enterococcus or nontoxin-producing E. coli, that signifies fecal contamination.

Often the bearer of bad news, Consumer Reports announced the results of bacteria tests its researchers performed on 300 packages – about 460 pounds – of ground beef. The beef came from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities.

All 460 pounds of ground beef tested positive for enterococcus or nontoxin-producing E. coli. The prevalence of other bacteria was dependent on how the original cows were raised.

Cows raised conventionally spend the last year or so of their lives in industrial feedlots where they are fed corn, soy, candy, pork and chicken trimmings, and chicken droppings. Antibiotics are regularly given to prevent disease and also helps the cows put on additional weight.

Sustainably raised cows spend more time in pastures, but can still end up in feed lots. At the very least sustainably raised cows are not given antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Grass fed, or pasture raised cows spend their entire lives eating grass.

Overall, almost 20 percent of the ground beef tested contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can't be destroyed even with proper cooking. Only 1 percent contained salmonella, which Consumer Reports says doesn't seem like a big deal on a small scale, but it's more worrisome when you consider that Americans buy 4.6 million pounds of ground beef each year.

Since the use of antibiotics in farming has contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Consumer Reports also did additional tests to determine if the bacteria researchers found was resistant to antibiotics in the same classes that are commonly used to treat infections in people.

Consumer Reports writes,

One of the most significant findings of our research is that 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. We found a type of antibiotic-resistant S. aureus bacteria called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. every year, on three conventional samples (and none on sustainable samples). And 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 North American Meat Institute (NAMI) issued a statement disputing the findings, calling beef safer than ever since Consumer Reports researchers did not find any instances of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli and salmonella are the greatest health risks to the public.

The organization also called Consumer Reports' claims of superbugs alarmist.

"Just because a bacterium is resistant to one, two or even three antibiotics doesn't necessarily make it a superbug," NAMI Vice President of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren said in a statement. "Superbugs are bacteria that are no longer treatable with antibiotics. The important aspect to look at isn't the resistance itself, but whether that resistance is a public health danger."

Safe Cooking

While there is still a food poisoning risk associated with eating an undercooked steak, the risk increases significantly with ground beef, mainly due to processing and preparation. Bacteria for whole cuts of beef, like steak, tends to stay on the outside (unless it's mechanically tenderized), which often becomes hot enough to kill off any lingering germs that could make a person sick,

Grinding beef, on the other hand, mixes the bugs throughout the meat, including in the middle. Ground beef is often made up of multiple animals so one contaminated cow can end up in many packages of meat. Add to that the level of care you take preparing your meatballs or meatloaf in your kitchen, there are multiple points of possible contamination.

So, what should you do with this information? Whether you continue to eat your beloved cheeseburger or give it up for a veggie burger is a personal choice.

One thing both Consumer Reports and the beef industry can agree on is that ground beef should be cooked medium, or more specifically, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees in order to kill any bacteria. Burgers cooked medium rare or rare are cooked below 160 degrees.

More information about Consumer Reports' research and tips for purchasing ground beef can be found on the magazine's website.