A new investigation of ground beef suggests that every hamburger you eat probably has a little bit of poop bacteria in it.
But before you write off ground beef forever, it’s important to consider what researchers say about the Beef Report, published by Consumer Reports, a non-profit watchdog.
Here are the most important things we learned after digging into the report, reading expert statements, and talking to a food scientist.
What did they find in ground beef?
Consumer Reports sampled three types of beef in two groups: conventionally-raised beef (181 samples), and organic or grassfed beef (116 samples). And in each sample, they tested for five different types of bacteria.
The following chart shows the per cent of samples that tested positive for each different kind of bacteria. Note that E. coli and Enterococcus are faecal bacteria:
Yes, the report found faecal bacteria in practically every pound of beef tested — in both conventional and organic beef.
It also found that almost one-fifth of conventional beef tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria:
Should you never eat another hamburger?
Just because the samples tested positive for bacteria doesn’t necessarily mean that beef would make you sick.
“We eat bacteria all the time,” Jeffrey LeJeune, head of the Food Animal Health Research Program at Ohio State University, told Tech Insider. “Our food is definitely not sterile.”
That’s not a bad thing: Most bacteria are harmless to people.
The North American Meat Institute didn’t deny the presence of faecal bacteria in beef. But it says the report failed to highlight the fact that almost all the bacteria Consumer Reports found is harmless.
“Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria,” the institute said in a statement about the report.
And microbiologist Francisco Diez-Gonzalez said in a different statement that E. coli and Enterococcus, by themselves, do not represent a significant health risk for the consumer. For example, only 3 out of 152 samples that had E. coli in them contained a species known to cause food poisoning outbreaks.
Moreover, the report found Salmonella in about 1% of the samples — nearly on par with the USDA guidelines that Salmonella prevalence be limited to 0.9%.
It’s also important to note that S. aureus and C. perfringens bacteria are typically only a problem if the meat is not handled or cooked properly.
That said, we still don’t want to eat more bacteria than we have to, LeJeune noted. It’s simple statistics — the more bacteria we are exposed to, the higher the chance is we’ll get sick. More bacteria also makes food spoil faster.
Should you only buy organic?
The report concludes there’s more drug-resistant bacteria in conventional beef because the cattle are fed antibiotics.
The more antibiotics used, the more likely bacteria are to become resistant to the drugs — it’s a vicious feedback loop and it’s becoming a serious problem in our food supply.
It extends beyond food, too: These are the same antibiotics that people take to fight off bacterial infections, so if a bacteria becomes drug-resistant in cows, it can also be resistant to treatments in humans.
But it’s clear the report also found drug-resistant bacteria in organic beef — cattle that aren’t supposed to get antibiotics.
That’s because some drug resistance develops naturally, Mindy Brashears, a professor of food safety and public health, said in a statement about the report, published on Genetic Expert News Service.
So antibiotics are not the sole cause of drug-resistant bacteria, but they are making the problem far worse and speeding up the development of multi-drug-resistant bacteria.
Still, agricultural use of antibiotics is not all bad. They’re valuable tools since we need healthy animals if we want food that is safe to eat, LeJeune said. For example, if an organic beef farmer gives a cow some antibiotics for a foot infection then allows the animal time to recover and clear the antibiotics from its body before slaughter, there’s no problem there.
But some farms use antibiotics on a regular basis to fatten cattle up in cramped conditions, which is likely contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Beef raised completely antibiotic-free isn’t critical, but beef raised without growth-promotion antibiotics is critical, LeJeune said.
“Antibiotics in agriculture are not bad — but growth promotion is not a prudent use of them,” she said.
The biggest risk is farm-to-table contamination
While most ground meat will end up with at least some bacteria in it, there are other factors at play after the meat ships.
Those things — refrigeration methods, butcher or restaurant handling, and even at-home preparation — actually have a higher chance of contaminating our hamburgers than conventional or organic or grassfed sourcing.
Really, the best way to make sure you don’t get sick is to cook your burger all the way through, to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. And do not put it back on the same plate where the raw patties were, LeJeune said.
The investigation says you shouldn’t buy conventional ground beef, since it has way more harmful bacteria (not just faecal bacteria) than organic beef.
But if you’re only worried about food safety, the difference between conventional and organic beef isn’t that big. It might be a better idea to look for beef that is growth antibiotic-free to help contain the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
Most important for meat lovers is to eat only ground beef cooked thoroughly to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the best way to avoid getting sick, even if it isn’t foolproof. Any kind of “rare” won’t cut it, and even “medium” is risky, since it’s somewhat in the eye of the spatula-holder.
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