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How risky is that burger you're biting into?
Reader beware: Don't believe everything you find in print. And, when your text is about food safety, make a distinction between fact and opinion. These preceding pieces of advice were inspired by a recent Consumer Reports article and a tip on safe cooking in a book entitled Great Kitchen Secrets. Let's find out how our Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board scientists reacted to both, beginning with the famous magazine.
Consumer Reports' Flawed Report on Ground Beef
Is the ground beef sold in American stores safe to eat?
The cover of the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports has this alarming message: "WANTED: SAFE BEEF Bacteria-tainted ground beef remains a major source of serious illness in the U.S. We know how to make the system better. What's holding us back?" The subheading says, "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." These quotes lead the reader to conclude that our ubiquitous burgers are a major health problem and that nothing is being done to decrease the danger. Also, the magazine's preference for organic and/or grass-fed beef is implied in the heading and further developed in the article.
Since I (and probably you, too) eat a lot of ground beef in burgers, tacos, and many other items, I was surprised and a bit frightened by these statements. Therefore, I asked our Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board scientists to respond to this shocking 8-page article. I wasn't surprised that, they disagreed with some of its conclusions and felt that the Consumer Reports research it was based upon was questionable.
Beef (all types) is not the biggest cause of food-borne illness. The CR article admits that and even reprints the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chart "Foods That Make Us Sick," where fish, dairy and other foods are all listed as greater causes of food-borne illness than beef. Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says that, in the past few years, most major food-borne illness outbreaks in the U.S. have not been caused by ground beef but by other foods. (Remember eggs? And, very recently, more than 700 people were sickened by cucumbers.)
Furthermore, Dr. Cutter points out that, in recent years, there has been huge progress in reducing illness from ground beef. "Ground beef is the safest it has ever been with greater than 90 percent reductions in pathogenic E. coli." She regrets the fact that CR does not mention this accomplishment. Government regulations and new research both get credit for improvement in ground beef. Government funding of about $22 million has been provided in a grant to a group of 15 different universities to study the prevention, detection, and control of Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli (STEC) from pre-harvest through consumption of beef products.
In response to the Consumer Reports article, Dr. Cutter created a PowerPoint presentation entitled "The Consumer Reports Study on Beef Safety: Fact or Fiction?" Here's what her presentation says about safety regulations: "The beef industry has implemented HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and other food safety programs, intervention technologies, and voluntary pathogen-testing programs to improve the beef supply and protect consumers. Any STEC-containing product is considered 'adulterated' and is removed from the human food system." Her presentation also mentions that salmonella was NOT found in 99% of the CR samples, which is in line with USDA standards. A major source of the statistics in her presentation come from the American Meat Science Association.
Is organic or grass-fed better than conventional? Are smaller facilities better?
Now let's talk about opinion. CR claims (based upon its own research) that organic beef and beef from grass-fed animals are more healthful than beef from conventionally raised animals. However, many scientists do not believe there is good evidence to support that idea. The viewpoint expressed most often is that there is no significant difference in the level of safety because the conventional food supply is quite safe. Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein says that the amount of hormones found in conventional beef products is not harmful. The presence of antibiotics in food is ILLEGAL. If food animals have been given antibiotics, there must be a withdrawal period before slaughter. The issue with antibiotics and their effect upon human health is about the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is NOT about antibiotics being in the food."
In 2013, Shelf Life Advice conducted a survey about food safety, including one question about organic versus conventional produce. We surveyed academic food scientists, those who were teaching at various American universities. Although the following question was about organic produce, not meat, it does suggest that most food scientists do not consider organic food superior to conventional food. Here are the % answers we received from responders.
WHICH STATEMENT [ABOUT ORGANIC PRODUCE] IS CLOSEST TO YOUR POINT OF VIEW?
a) Organic produce is safer than conventional produce: 0%
b) Organic produce is safer because it has no pesticides, artificial preservatives, or GMOs: 3%
c) Organic produce is about as safe as conventional produce: 72%
d) Organic produce is less safe than conventional produce: 25%
Many of the statistics in CR's article come from the publication's own testing of 300 beef samples. Two of the scientists on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board pointed out that the methodology used in the collection of this small sample is not explained in the article. Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks responds thusly: " I would not trust CR data. If I selected samples differently, I could skew the results any way I wanted. You have to know the history, time/temperature, packaging, processing equipment, etc. and you have to select samples from a broad area that uses similar distribution chains."
Dr. Hicks also comments on CR's conclusion that beef from grass-fed animals is safer than beef from conventionally raised animals: "The safety of ground beef has little to do with how the beef was raised. Organic ground beef is no safer than traditional beef, but it may well have a grassy flavor if the animals have not been on a high-carb diet prior to slaughter. (Most consumers object to grassy flavors in beef.) When beef is ground, contamination can occur through the use of unsanitary equipment. Once contamination occurs, pathogens can grow during the distribution and/or the retail phase."
Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser made the following comment about the CR article in general: "I am skeptical of what I read in the article. It seems very one-sided." He also offered these comments on grass-fed versus grain-fed animals and drugs fed to cattle: "I have been around farms all of my life and currently live in one of the top beef-producing states in the nation. I also work in a USDA inspected beef processing facility and have taught in and reviewed meat processing facilities around the world. Grass-fed organic beef is certainly a high-quality product and I am not detracting from its inherent goodness, but in my experience, grain-fed beef normally tastes better and has a superior texture. The article points out that grain-fed beef are normally concentrated in feed lots that are dirty and dusty. In the winter time, grass-feeding is not optimal in many states and cows are moved to areas that look like a feed lot to me. They are fed hay and dried forage that is suboptimal compared to fresh grass or grains."
What about the use of drugs and the size of facilities?
Dr. Bowser says, "Regarding drugs, I think that all cattle should be given carefully-regulated and prescribed medicines when needed to preserve their health and wellbeing. Fortunately, the use of growth hormones, broad spectrum antibiotics and other drugs are declining rapidly industry-wide. Responsible use of these items must be demanded and enforced regardless of the feed source for the animal.
"The CR article claims that large-scale meat processors can be inhumane and less sanitary. My experience has been just the opposite. The larger facilities have greater resources and can afford to hire specialists and fund research that can focus on issues like humane treatment, food safety and sanitation. Because of an increased level of quality control, mistakes are recognized and protocol and controls are put in place to prevent them from occurring again. This preventive process is much more difficult for smaller scale processors to accomplish."
Final statements about safety and CR
To conclude the discussion of the CR article, the following points, quoted from Dr. Cutter's PowerPoint presentation, should reassure readers who were left with a feeling of high anxiety after reading the CR article, that they can, in fact, enjoy consuming properly-cooked ground beef without fear.
"Any beef animal slaughtered and processed at a commercial facility undergoes both ante- mortem and post-mortem USDA inspection to ensure that the meat is safe for consumption.
Generic (non-disease-causing) E. coli live naturally in the lower intestines of all mammals and can be found naturally in the environment. It is not alarming or dangerous for it to be present in ground beef."
Shelf Life Advice wonders why Consumer Reports chose to publish such a negative portrait of an industry that has made impressive strides toward improving the safety of the American food supply.
A Rejected Suggestion: Microwaving Ground Beef
In a book called Great Kitchen Secrets, the author, chef Tony Notaro, recommends this technique for cooking a safe burger: "If you microwave the meat for a few minutes before cooking, this will make the meat safer [from pathogens] and will remove a large percentage of the precursors to HAAs [which, he had earlier pointed out, pose the risk of creating a carcinogen called "heterocyclic aromatic amine" due to high heat used in the cooking process.]
Even if ground beef is microwaved before further cooking, our Board scientists and the USDA all agree that all ground meat, to be safe to consume, must be cooked to at least 160°F. Those who dine on rare, medium-rare, or medium burgers risk getting a food-borne illness unless the meat that they're consuming has been irradiated. To their credit, the CR article recommends cooking to 160°F and discusses proper handling of ground meat (such as avoiding cross-contamination and keeping it in the fridge until ready to cook it).
Here is Dr. Hicks' response to the chef's suggestion: "Yes, you could cook the meat in the microwave, but then you have uneven heating through the product. You need to cook ground beef to an internal temperature of at least 160°F for pathogen-safety reasons, but do it in such a way that you are limiting the amount of really high heat on the surface and the amount of charring. Cooking on a moderately hot grill will limit the amount of charring but still give you a great-tasting burger."
Dr. Cutter agrees: "Precooking a burger in the microwave isn't going to help at all. The microwave tends to give people a false sense of security. Actually, it's notorious for uneven cooking and is better used for reheating."
Dr. Regenstein doesn't seem to favor the chef's idea either: "I have not heard this before, and I’m a bit skeptical. If you cooked it completely in the microwave that would be one thing, but this is not computing unless the assumption is that you’ll have less browning/burning from the rest of the cooking because the beef is already hot from microwaving."
Dr. Bowser has additional explanations and good tips on this topic: "Several forms of HAAs are produced at high temperatures. If the cooking temperature/time process is reduced, in theory the amount of HAAs may be reduced. This has been documented by researchers.
"However, the higher temperatures are required to kill the microbes. Other processes to kill microbes are available but are seldom used. One new process, High Pressure Processing (HPP), can be very effective and does not appreciably change the quality of the meat. Irradiation is another effective process. [For an explanation of HPP, go to "High -pressure processing--effects on microbial food safety and food quality."]
"The low temperature (135°F) may not be enough to effectively kill the bacteria, but less fat will leak out of the burger when it is cooked at the lower temperature. More fat will result in a softer, smoother texture and a better flavor. Still, in my opinion, it is not worth the risk. Hamburger should be cooked to the required temperature or another, effective and safe kill step should be implemented (e.g. HPP).
"I think that the particle size of the grind is a matter of personal choice and application. Fine grinds, for example, tend to do well for grilled patties. Coarse grinds work well for pan-fried burgers. I prefer finely ground beef for spaghetti sauce and coarsely ground meat for chili."
Note: If I seem to be picking on Chef Notaro's book, that was not my intention. Many of its 5,000 "kitchen secrets" are just fine.
Let's conclude this section with some good general advice from Dr. Cutter: "Chefs are not the best authorities on pathogen control. Keep this in mind when following a recipe."
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D. , Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science
Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science
Consumer Reports "Wanted: Safe Beef," October, 2015
Chef Tony Notaro and Dr. Myles H. Bader, Great Kitchen Secrets, 2012.
American Meat Science Association