Safety Alert: Ground Beef

Americans eat a lot of ground beef. Last year we bought more than 2 billion pounds of it in supermarkets and big-box stores. But that hamburger you’re grilling could contain harmful bacteria, and unless you cook it thoroughly, it could make you sick.

Consumer Reports tested 300 packages of ground beef purchased in stores across the country. Almost all contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination. More than 40 percent contained staph aureus. Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, which causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually, many related to beef. And a significant amount contained superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics.

A key reason: the overuse of antibiotics on cattle farms. That practice can lead to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a major public health problem. If you get sick from those bugs, your infection can be difficult to treat.

The tests did reveal some good news. Ground beef from cows that are grass-fed and raised without antibiotics were three times less likely to have superbug bacteria. This study is significant because it’s among the largest scientific studies to show that sustainable methods of raising cattle can produce cleaner, safer ground beef.

Conventional cattle farmers defend their methods, however. “If all cattle were grass-fed, we’d have less beef, and it would be less affordable,” says Mike Apley, Ph.D., a veterinarian, professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and chair of the Antibiotic Resistance Working Group at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group.

When shopping for ground beef, Consumer Reports recommends choosing ground beef labeled as “no antibiotics,” “grass-fed,” or “organic.” Even better is “organic and grass-fed” beef, which in its tests was less likely to contain bacteria and superbugs. That beef also comes from animals raised in more humane conditions.

No matter what beef you buy, Consumer Reports reminds you that cooking to 160° F is the safest temperature for your meat so that the bacteria has been killed.

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