Consumer Reports funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts tested the prevalence and types of bacteria found in ground beef sold in stores across the United States as part of a series looking at food safety. Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of ground beef weighing an average of slightly over a pound and a half from 103 grocery, natural food and warehouse stores in 26 cities throughout the U.S. They bought conventionally raised, grass-fed, organic and grass-fed organic ground beef; and tested to raw beef to see how safe it was.
Conventionally raised beef is where young cattle are shipped to feedlots where they are restricted in space and fed mostly corn and soybeans for several months to a year. They are also given antibiotics and other drugs to promote weight gain and prevent disease. In addition, they are sometimes feed other junk such as candy and feed that contains animal production waste. The animals in feedlots are crowded into pens; the average feedlot in the U.S. houses about 4,300 head of cattle, according to Food & Water Watch’s 2015 Factory Farm Nation Report.
I started buying grass fed beef back in the day when I was doing environmental evaluations of farms, dairies and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). I will not go into the highly gross details of that work; however, my concerns for the animal welfare, mad cow disease, and environmental impact of CAFOs pushed me to buy my meat from the first sustainable farm I inspected, and I continue to buy off the grid, sustainable, grass-fed beef from Polyface Farms here in Virginia. Cattle that are grass-fed spend their entire lives grazing eating grass and forage that grows in the pasture. In addition, hay and silage which is just compacted grass are used to supplement in winter. Grass-fed cattle require more land for pasturing as well as good management of the grazing to avoid over grazing the fields. This type of farm management protects our land and water resources. Now it turns out that grass-fed beef is healthier and safer for us to eat.
In their study consumer reports found that almost 100% of the ground beef tested positive for enterococcus bacteria (including almost all of the grass-fed beef). Enterococci are part of the normal inhabitants of humans and animal intestines. The genus Enterococcus includes more than 17 species, although only a few cause clinical infections in humans. So, though their presence was ubiquitous, I’m not sure that is really of concern. In the United States most cases of food poisoning are caused by common bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli.
E. coli is an indicator organism for fecal matter, but does not necessarily mean the product is, in fact, contaminated by feces. E. coli are found in human stool (feces) and were found in 60% of the conventional ground beef and 40% of the grass feed ground beef tested. Research shows that conventionally raised cattle that are “finished” in feed lots have higher levels of ulcers and infections and appear to shed more E. coli than grass feed and field raised beef.
Salmonella Enteritidis may be found in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals was barely found in the beef sampled. Consumer Reports did find Staphylococcus aureus can be carried on human hands, in nasal passages, or in throats. The bacteria are typically found in foods made by hand and then improperly refrigerated, but was found in about 55% of the conventional ground beef and more than 25% of the grass feed beef. Keeping food refrigerated and using proper cooking methods reduces infection by this bacterium.
Consumer Reports also looked at what they called superbugs. These are bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, making them a much bigger health threat. In the 300 samples of raw ground beef tested, they found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with these antibiotic resistant bacteria as more sustainably produced meat and three times more likely to be contaminated with the “superbug” bacteria as grass-fed organic meat. So, though Polyface Farms now charges $7.00 per pound for ground beef and I have to drive to pick it up, it is so worth it to me. We cook all our meals at home every day in order to be able to afford to eat well and ensure that our food is humanly and sustainable produced.