Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 due to tainted beef, sickening 1,144 people, putting 316 in the hospital, and killing five. Ground beef was the source of the majority of those outbreaks.

In the middle of summer, 13.5 tons of ground beef and steak were recalled on a single day because of possible contamination with a dangerous bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7. That particular bacterial strain can release a toxin that damages the lining of the intestine, often leading to abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, life-threatening kidney damage. The beef was heading to restaurants.

Most people know that beef should not be consumed rare, and ground beef in particular poses a real threat. Bacteria is commonly introduced during slaughter or processing. In whole cuts such as steak or roasts, the bacteria tend to stay on the surface, so when you cook them, the outside is likely to get hot enough to kill any bugs. But when beef is ground up, the bacteria get mixed throughout, contaminating all of the meat—including what’s in the middle of your hamburger. Further increasing the danger is the practice of mixing meat and fat trimmings from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef.

Consumer Reports (CR) performed a test for the prevalence and types of bacteria in ground beef. The consumer organization purchased 300 packages—a total of 458 pounds (the equivalent of 1,832 quarter-pounders)—from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. All types of ground beef were tested: conventional—the most common type of beef sold, in which cattle are typically fattened up with grain and soy in feedlots and fed antibiotics and other drugs to promote growth and prevent disease—as well as beef that was raised in more sustainable ways, which have important implications for food safety and animal welfare. At a minimum, sustainably produced beef was raised without antibiotics. Organic cattle are not given antibiotics or other drugs, and they are fed organic feed. Grass-fed cattle usually don’t get antibiotics, and they spend their lives on pasture, not feedlots.

CR analyzed the samples for five common types of bacteria found on beef—clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), enterococcus, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus.

CR reported the results last week and characterized the numbers as “sobering.” All 458 pounds of beef examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli), which can cause blood or urinary tract infections. Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick. That toxin can’t be destroyed—even with proper cooking.

One of the most significant findings 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. CR 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.

To read the complete report on the CR website, visit http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/how-safe-is-your-ground-beef.

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