Why Is Ground Beef Making People Sick?
There have been two huge recalls in the past month. Here's what's going on. For full access to Consumer Reports Digital ratings and reviews, union members can save 25% on an online subscription to Consumer Reports Digital.
This past September, two of the biggest meat producers in the U.S. issued separate recalls for more than 7 million pounds of ground beef. The first recall, from Cargill, followed an E. coli outbreak that caused at least 18 illnesses and one death. The second, from JBS, was linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 57 people. Federal investigators expect that there will be more victims soon in both outbreaks.
Is the nation’s ground beef safe to eat? Given how huge these recalls are and a history of ground beef contamination in the U.S. (a 2015 Consumer Reports study found bacteria that are indicators of fecal contamination in all 300 samples of ground beef it tested), our experts think these recalls are part of a large and ongoing food-safety problem.
“Given the way most beef is produced from cows raised in feedlots, where for months thousands of cows may stand together in their own manure, it can be difficult to control the spread of disease-causing bacteria,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “Therefore, it’s crucial that consumers are careful with how they prepare and consume ground beef.”
So should you stop eating burgers for now? Or are there precautions you can take that will keep you safe in spite of these bacterial concerns? Here are answers to your most pressing ground beef questions.
What’s CR’s Advice for the Recalled Beef?
In both cases, the products that were recalled were no longer on the market, but it’s likely that some consumers could still have the contaminated beef in their freezers. Consumer Reports advises that if you have ground beef in your freezer that you purchased roughly between late June and September of this year, you should not consume it.
What if It’s Not From JBS or Cargill?
If you are completely certain the ground beef you purchased and froze was not produced by JBS or Cargill, then you’re probably safe. The trouble is, both of these producers sell beef in bulk to retailers, and those retailers repackage the beef in ways that make it difficult—if not impossible—to figure out who produced it.
Is Beef Purchased in Early October Safe?
The use-by date on the last batch of potentially contaminated beef from JBS was Sept. 27 (all of the recalled Cargill beef had a July 11 use-by date), so fresh beef purchased in October is almost certainly safe. But it’s always important to take safety precautions when preparing and cooking any type of meat (more on this below).
Doesn’t Freezing Kill Bacteria?
Freezing slows down the growth of bacteria, whether they’re the type that cause food spoilage or food poisoning, but it won’t kill them. “If meat goes into your freezer contaminated with E. coli or salmonella, it will still harbor the bacteria when you thaw the food,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. Color and smell can usually alert you to meat that’s spoiled, but meat contaminated with the bacteria that cause foodborne illness can look and smell perfectly fine.
What if I Cook the Meat to Well-Done?
The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suggests that beef contaminated by foodborne pathogens is safe to eat assuming you cook it to an internal temperature of 160° F (typically considered medium doneness). While this advice is accurate, Rogers thinks many consumers may still not want to take a risk and eat possibly contaminated beef.
“Knowing you have a product that may contain a potentially deadly pathogen, it’s understandable if there’s no level of cooking that makes you want to serve it to your family,” he says.
And even if you cook it as directed by the USDA, you could still contaminate cooking utensils and other foods with the raw meat as you prepare your meal. Cross-contamination is a common means for pathogens to spread through a home kitchen. “Ground beef is a food that gets touched a lot in prep—forming burgers or meatloaf for instance,” Rogers says. When you're preparing any raw meat, make sure to frequently wash your hands, utensils, and cooking surfaces with hot soapy water.
If you do decide to take a risk, Rogers says you must be very careful about cross-contamination, and he stresses the importance of using a meat thermometer. Color (or juices that run clear) isn’t a reliable indicator of doneness. According to an FSIS study, 1 in 4 burgers turned brown before reaching the safe temperature of 160° F. When using a thermometer, make sure you stick the needle directly into the center of the burger; some experts suggest you’ll get the most accurate reading if you insert it sideways rather than through the top.
Why Is Ground Beef So Problematic?
Ground meat is more susceptible to contamination than whole cuts of meat. It’s often made from the meat of many animals, so meat from a single animal can end up contaminating many packages in a supermarket. And with whole cuts, any harmful bacteria that may be present usually stick to the surface, so it will be killed pretty easily once you cook it. (This assumes that the cut hasn't been mechanically tenderized, a process that can drive bacteria into the center of the meat.) But when meat is ground, the bacteria can be mixed throughout. “Let’s say you’re cooking a steak. As long as it’s well-cooked on the outside, you could still eat it rare,” says Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., a professor of food safety at Cornell University. “With a burger, you need to be totally certain you’ve cooked it through to the center.”
How Does Meat Get Contaminated?
Dangerous strains of E. coli and salmonella are found in animal (and occasionally human) waste. If these pathogens are present in a cow’s intestine when it is killed, it can contaminate meat during the slaughter and production process, and potentially taint processing equipment and surfaces.
Is Organic Ground Beef Safer to Eat?
CR’S 2015 ground beef testing found similar rates of salmonella between conventional, grass-fed, and organic meat, while E. coli was more commonly found in conventional beef. The takeaway: No matter how your beef was raised, you still need to cook it thoroughly to keep it safe.
What's Worse—E. Coli or Salmonella?
They’re two different types of bacteria that can make you sick. "The initial symptoms are mostly the same, the level of risk is mostly the same, and the way you avoid getting sick from them are the same,” says Wiedmann. Both can also be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people get sick from salmonella; it causes about 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths annually. E. coli causes 265,000 illnesses and 30 deaths each year. Most E. coli infections are due to toxin-producing strains, such as 0157:H7, that can cause severe symptoms and in 5 to 10 percent of cases lead to life-threatening kidney failure.
How Do I Know Whether I Have Food Poisoning?
Typical symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. The CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you have a high fever, bloody diarrhea, or severe vomiting, or if diarrhea lasts longer than three days. Small children, the elderly, and anyone who is immunocompromised are especially vulnerable.
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