Our Beef with Shoddy, Sensationalist, & Suspect Science: Consumer Reports & Ground Meat

Highlights: 

If you remember nothing else from this media frenzy, remember this:

  • Our meat supply is safe and tested by the USDA,
  • Safe food handling procedures, like washing your hands and cooking your meat, are what you need to keep your family safe, and
  • Safe food handling procedures are needed for both organic and conventionally produced meat- microbes don’t care how your food was produced, and the two are equally safe.

If you’re checking Facebook, watching morning shows, or answering calls from your mom, you’ve probably already seen the latest headline grab from Consumer Reports, claiming that your ground beef is, inevitably, going to kill you. If you remember nothing else from this media frenzy, remember this: 1) Our meat supply is safe and tested by the USDA, 2) Safe food handling procedures, like washing your hands and cooking your meat, are what you need to keep your family safe, and 3) Safe food handling procedures are needed for both organic and conventionally produced meat- microbes don’t care how your food was produced, and the two are equally safe.

After digging in to their report, here are a number of things they got wrong (and one they got right):

 

What They Got Wrong

 

Myth: There are safety differences difference between grass-fed or organic meat compared to conventional.

Fact: Uncooked meat isn’t safe to eat, regardless of how it was raised, and there is no difference in safety between organic and conventionally raised burgers.

dont-eat-raw-meatFirst things first: no beef, whether organic or conventionally raised, is safe to eat unless it is has been cooked to the proper internal temperature. Consumer Reports doesn’t dispute this. The report also showed that all samples tested (this includes organic/grass-fed and conventional) contained “bacteria that signified fecal contamination.” So their data show what scientists already knew to be true: all uncooked beef (no matter the production method) can contain bacteria, and some of that bacteria could be harmful. Even when we’re comparing apples to apples (meaning, everything is properly cooked), there is no difference in safety between organic and conventionally raised burgers. In fact, a large systematic review conducted by Stanford researchers showed that there is no difference in safety between organic and conventional food. Dr. Mike Doyle, PhD, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains:

"There is no definitive scientific evidence to indicate that organic beef is safer than conventionally raised beef.  However, there have been many insinuations, based on indirect evidence or superficial studies, that organic beef is safest.  The presence and number of bacteria found in ground beef is largely reflective of the conditions under which beef is processed, not on the conditions by which cattle are grown.  In the 1980’s, it was not uncommon to have bacterial counts in ground beef of more than a million cells per gram, whereas today’s ground beef typically has less than a thousand to ten thousand bacteria per gram.  This is largely because beef processing conditions have markedly improved over the years, in part by including many innovative food safety interventions at processing facilities.  Most bacteria present in raw ground beef are not harmful to human health; however, E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella are harmful and can occasionally be found in raw ground beef, whether conventionally grown or organically grown.  This is why it is important to cook ground beef to at least 160°F before it’s eaten."

So whether your ground beef is organic or conventionally raised, be sure to protect yourself and your family by cooking your burgers to 160 degrees. Every time.

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Myth: “Superbugs” in conventionally raised meat are making food unsafe.

Fact: The FDA and farmers are addressing antibiotic resistance through stewardship, and safe food handling keeps your family safe when eating either organic or conventionally raised meat.

antibiotic-stewardship

The report makes sweeping statements about the presence of so-called “superbugs” in conventionally raised meat without providing any citation. Consumer Reports also does not define “superbug”, a word that has too often been used to incite unnecessary fear among readers. In fact, the FDA has spoken out against similar reports that used this term:

"We believe that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as "superbugs" if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease." 

So, regardless how Consumer Reports defines “superbugs”, should you worry about them in your meat? Short answer: no. Following the four steps of safe food handling (clean, separate, cook, and chill) will keep you and your family safe from any potential pathogens in your food. Farmers practicing antibiotic stewardship also protect us from potential antibiotic resistant organisms. By working with veterinarians and other trained professionals, many producers are decreasing antibiotic use to the lowest levels necessary while still humanely treating illness among their animals. Also, the FDA has provided guidance on phasing out “medically important” antibiotics from food-producing animals, including cattle. Meaning that many producers are voluntarily stopping the use of animal antibiotics that are also used to treat common human illnesses. This means less of an opportunity for antibiotic resistant strains to develop

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Myth: Antibiotics are just a way to cheaply ‘fatten up’ cattle.

Fact: Antibiotics are critical tools for animal health, and all farmers have an ethical responsibility to use them when needed.

antibiotics-and-animal-welfare

This is a big issue, so bear with us. Consumer Reports claims that antibiotics are used as ‘the most cost-efficient way to fatten up cattle.’ Not only is this a warped view of animal health and medicine, but it’s an insult to the vets around the country and the world who work every day to prioritize food safety and animal welfare. Animals used in food production should be able to live as free from pain, suffering and sickness as possible. Experts such as H. Morgan Scott, DVM, Texas A&M, and others agree that the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals is the moral and ethical thing to do.  Healthy animals mean a safe, affordable and abundant food supply.

As highlighted by FACTS earlier this year, many opponents of antibiotics try to paint a picture of farmers of traditionally raised animals as somehow unethical or uncaring about how their animals are raised. In reality, even organic farmers are allowed to use antibiotics, as Will Gilmer, a dairy farmer in Alabama explains:

When antibiotics are deemed medically necessary to treat a sick animal, farmers and ranchers, both "conventional" and "organic," have an ethical responsibility to treat them. To balance their responsibility to the animal's health and the requirements of organic labeling, most organic producers either market treated animals as conventionally raised or sell them to a producer who is not in the organic or similar program.

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Myth: Buying up raw meat and testing it in an un-transparent environment is “science.”

Fact: Science is not sensationalist. It’s the use of accepted methodologies like systematic review and randomized-controlled trials. It’s clear and valid study approaches. It’s transparency in data, analysis, and conclusions. And, it’s peer-reviewed so that readers can see if methodologies stand up to the light of day.

junk-science-sins

Consumer Reports doesn’t include citations or references for any of its assumptions or categorizations. It doesn’t use peer-reviewed methodology, and it provides no sharing of raw data that would allow independent review of their findings. They don’t show their criteria for bacterial contamination, or categorizing different types of meat production.

Consumer Reports shows their real intent in the way they blur the line between science, economics, ‘ethics,’ and activist groups.  This is all about polarization and pitting farmers (and eaters!) against each other, not making our food system safer. While it won’t grab the sensationalist social media trends, the way that you can improve food safety is practicing and teaching safe food handling.

 

What They Get Right

 

food-safety-behaviorFACT: There are risks of undercooking or handling raw meat – use a food thermometer and wash your hands!

Microbes don’t care how your food was produced. Both organic and conventionally produced foods can be contaminated with dangerous pathogens. E. Coli, Salmonella, and Listeria don’t discriminate. In fact, some research has even shown higher rates of microbial contamination on organic foods than conventionally produced foods. All the more reason to brush up on your safe food-handling skills, no matter what type of foods you buy.

There are four simple steps to help keep your family food safe: Clean, separate, cook, and chill. Check out our infographic Consumer’s Guide to Safe Food Handling. And remember, these tips apply to ALL foods… no matter the production methods.

 

This blog includes contibutions from Liz Sanders, RD, MPH.

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