Right now, there’s a report circulating the wires that says conventional ground beef is more dangerous to your health because it contains larger amounts of harmful bacteria than organic ground beef.
The report has even spawned this petition — set by Vani Hari, or popularly known as the Food Babe — which you can sign to request that Subway switch from conventional to organic ground beef for their popular meatball sub.
(To be fair, this is only the latest of Hari’s assulats on Subway. She’s been after the fast food company for years, notably pushing for them to remove what she calls the “yoga mat” chemical from their bread.)
Before you start shelling out more money for organic ground beef, consider this:
The real problem is cooking ground beef to the right temperature, which is 160 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as the beef gets that hot, it’s not going to matter if it’s organic or conventional — the bacteria should be cooked off. This usually means the meat should be cooked through with no pink, and to be extra sure, the USDA recommends that you use a meat thermometer.
But if you prefer some pink in your hamburger, you should take this latest Consumer Report with a grain of salt, according to Gary Acuff, the director of Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety, and professor of microbiology.
Acuff pointed out to Business Insider some problems with the way Consumer Reports presented their data and whether the consumers should reach for the organic ground beef, or not, next time they go shopping.
Here are his 4 points of contention:
1. The time of year
The 300 samples were only chosen during three weeks in October instead of looking at the year overall.
In the beef industry, there are known seasonal effects on how much bacteria from the hide of the cow gets into ground beef. Acuff argues the study should have looked at bacteria on beef samples from over the entire year to get a more accurate read.
2. The sample sizes
The sample sizes varied between conventional and organic ground beef.
Of the 300 samples looked at, 181 were of conventional beef, while 116 organic or grass-fed. You’re going to have a better chance of finding pathogens in a larger sample, Acuff said, meaning the uneven sample size worked against conventional beef.
3. The type of bacteria
Consumer Reports looked at 5 kinds of bacteria, but some of those don’t come from the beef itself but rather how it’s handled.
Of those, Acuff said, staphylococcus doesn’t even come from cows, but actually from people’s hands when they handle the meat while preparing it.
Same with clostridium perfringens: According to the CDC, C. perfringens usually occurs when food is mass produced and kept at a warm temperature before serving.
Enterococcus, which Consumer Reports argued is a faecal indicator, or proof that bacteria from the digestive system. But Acuff said the bacteria isn’t considered a reliable faecal indicator in the science community.
That means the bacteria could have gotten introduced not from the cow itself but from other times during food preparation. (Though, as Quartz points out, other microbiolgists think the bacteria couldn’t have really come from anywhere else.)
By that reasoning, only two bacteria came directly from the cows: salmonella and E. coli.
4. The results
Of the samples tested, only three contained salmonella, and three showed evidence of an E. coli bacteria that is seriously harmful.
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli is the kind that’s responsible for the seriously bad food poisoning outbreaks. But STEC bacteria weren’t separated out from counts of E. coli, and of the three samples that contained toxin-producing E. coli, the researchers weren’t able to grown any STEC.
“Salmonella was in only 1% of the samples, which is consistent with USDA testing baselines that indicate that the average Salmonella prevalence is 0.9%,” Mindy Brashears, a professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University told the Genetic Expert News Service.
(An important note, though: Acuff serves as an expert consultant to the North American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents the meat industry and lobbies in support of it.)
Here’s the real problem
Consumer Reports pointed out the problem of under-cooking meat, too:
“Up to 28 per cent of Americans eat ground beef that’s raw or undercooked,” Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the CDC, told Consumer Reports. But that problem holds true regardless of what kind of ground beef you’re cooking.
“The thing that everybody has to remember is that a raw food may have pathogenic bacteria on it,” Acuff said. “It’s true for beef, poultry, produce, lettuce — anything that’s raw can have bacteria.”
So is there any benefit to buying organic instead of conventional ground beef for the sake of preventing food poisoning from cows?
“I wouldn’t do it because they think it’s going to be safer,” he said. “Most of the safety issues have to do with how the food is handled during preparation.”
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