There’s nothing like biting into a big, juicy burger—unless you’re getting your beef with a side of nasty bacteria.
In a recent study by Consumer Reports, researchers analyzed 458 pounds of beef and found that all of it (yep, all of it) “contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination.” Vom.
Nearly 20 percent of the beef also contained the bacteria C. perfringens, which causes food poisoning. And one percent was contaminated with salmonella, a misleadingly low-sounding number when you consider the “billions of pounds of ground beef we eat every year,” researchers said.
So here’s the rub: You’re most at risk if you’re the type to order a burger undercooked (rare or medium-rare). That means the beef was cooked to temps less than 160 F, which is not hot enough to kill foodborne pathogens. “Up to 28 percent of Americans eat ground beef that’s raw or undercooked,” says Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Consumer Reports.
So why can you order a steak medium-rare and be fine? “Think of bacteria like pepper,” says Jonathan Campbell, Ph.D., meat extension specialist and assistant professor in animal science at Penn State University. “If you pepper the outside of a steak and sear it on the grill, you’ll kill the bacteria. If you grind that meat, you’ll mix the pepper throughout all of the meat,” he says. In other words, bacteria hang in all the nooks and crannies of your burger. Yum.
There are 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually, reports Foodsafety.gov. While anyone can get food poisoning, certain groups (like pregnant ladies and older folks) are especially vulnerable, and are at risk for severe illness or hospitalization, according to the CDC. If you’re healthy, eating an undercooked burger might not kill you, but it could leave you clutching the toilet for a couple days.
Are Happy Cows Better for You?
In general, cows raised sustainably (that means: organic, antibiotic-free, and fully or partially grass-fed) were found to have fewer strains of bacteria. While 18 percent of conventional beef contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria, only 9 percent of sustainable beef and 6 percent of grass-fed beef was filled with these superbugs.
“This shows that better farming practices deliver better quality and maybe safer meat in the process,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports. “When you consider meat as a whole, when you choose sustainably-raised beef, there’s less of a chance you’ll come into contact with drug-resistant bacteria, which has implications for you personally and for public health.”
While it’s tempting to see grass-fed or organic on a menu and feel “safe” ordering a medium-rare burger, that’s still throwing caution to the wind. “Whether it’s sustainable or not, there’s bacteria there period,” says Campbell. “It’s not as important as how much is in there, but that it’s there in the first place, especially for those groups of people who are at higher risk. All it takes is one cell of bacteria to make them sick.”
Mad Cow, What?
Let’s not forget about mad cow disease, either. Eeek! Humans eating infected beef can contract this deadly neurological disease—though the FDA points out that only four people in the US have ever contracted the illness. (And it likely happened when they were abroad.)
Here’s the deal: Cows can get infected from eating feed containing cow parts from sick animals. Though the FDA does not allow most cow parts to be used as food for cows (hello, cannibalism), Consumer Reports points out that cows can still be fed bovine blood and bone meal. Another issue: Cow parts can be used in chicken feed, and poultry waste is sometimes re-fed to cows. Rangan says that it’s a risk that we should be concerned about, and another reason why we need to practice responsible food production.
However, Campbell says there’s no reason to freak out. “You don’t have to be worried about mad cow,” he says. “The risk is far less great than not cooking meat properly.”
“National surveys show an overwhelming majority of consumers want things to be produced cleaner,” says Rangan. “The message isn’t that everyone shouldn’t eat beef, but that better beef practices matter.”
How to stay safe:
Don’t mix: Keep raw and cooked products separate. Use different cutting boards for veggies and meat.
Refrigerate: “If you buy ground beef, go straight home and put it in the fridge,” says Campbell. If that’s not possible, he says to wait to buy it.
Vote with your moolah: Grass-fed or organic beef costs more, but if it fits into your grocery budget, go for it, says Rangan.
Wash up: Most of us (think 95 percent) don’t wash our hands correctly, the New York Times reported. That means using water and soap, and scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds (it’s the friction that really washes off the germs). If you need a primer, read step-by-step instructions from the CDC here.
Use a thermometer: You can’t see if something is cooked right, especially with ground beef, says Campbell. “Even if the meat changes color to brown, it still might not be cooked properly,” he says. (And don’t even get us started on the unreliable touch test.) Break out that handy meat thermometer and cook it to 160 degrees F.
Order smart: Unless the taste of a medium-rare burger is worth the gamble, always order your burger cooked to at least medium. Not all restaurants get it right or use a thermometer to check the temp, so they may serve it to you underdone.