By: Eric Mittenthal
There has been a significant amount of media attention over the last few days on a Consumer Reports study which found varying levels of different bacteria on ground beef. Consumer Reports claims its findings show that ground beef is unsafe, but a deeper look at the study shows the story is actually very positive: The real headline should be about the bacteria that Consumer Reports doesn’t report finding in their testing — Shiga toxin-producing E. coli – and just one percent of samples with Salmonella, a number far below USDA performance standards, which are the foodborne bacteria of greatest public health concern in beef. Consumer Reports has several additional takeaways related to ground beef from conventionally raised animals vs. beef from grass-fed and organic systems which it calls “sustainably raised,” but as a whole, the data, methodology and conclusions from the report are weak and misleading, so it is hard to take much else meaningful away from the study.
Media Focuses on Feces
However, many in the media have focused on one claim from the study that has led to several very misleading and inaccurate stories—the idea that there is poop or fecal matter in your meat. Certainly this makes for eye grabbing headlines, but Consumer Reports did not find fecal matter in meat. In fact, nowhere in its report does it mention the words “fecal matter” or “poop.” What it found were bacteria, namely generic E.coli and Enterococcus, that are sometimes classified as signal organisms for fecal contamination, but different than fecal matter. The majority of this was Enterococcus which microbiologists now say are not good indicators of fecal contamination.
We asked Dr. Gary Acuff, a microbiologist at Texas A&M and director of the University’s Center for Food Safety, about this and he confirmed that the presence of bacteria do not indicate fecal contamination. “A “fecal indicator” bacteria does not mean feces is present. It means that bacteria originally associated with a gastrointestinal tract are present, and that might indicate the possible presence of a pathogen like Salmonella or Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC). We use generic E. coli to give us a heads-up that something might be wrong with sanitation or our process, not to indicate the actual presence of feces. Because it doesn’t,” Acuff writes.
What Consumer Reports found were bacteria that are commonly found in the environment, so it is no surprise to find them in beef, blueberries, anywhere else in a grocery store, or on your computer keyboard or phone. That doesn’t mean there’s poop on your phone, just that bacteria that once originated in a gastrointestinal tract is there. Simply put, they are different.
In this particular case, Consumer Reports did not specify the origin of the bacteria it found so while they can claim E.coli is an indicator organism, it doesn’t mean that it came from feces. For media to claim otherwise is simply inaccurate and misleading.
Rather than debating whether there is feces in meat or not, it would be more helpful for everyone to focus on the key takeaways consumers should have from the report. Harmful bacteria have been trending downward on meat and poultry products for the last two decades thanks to technologies and procedures implemented by meat plants to eliminate them. While these bacteria are rare, it’s always safest to assume they are present and cook and handle meat accordingly. That means that restaurants and consumers should cook their ground beef to 160 degrees F. and confirm that temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure bacteria are killed. This is true whether the meat is from animals that were conventionally raised, organic or grass-fed. It is a recommendation that Consumer Reports, NAMI and USDA all agree on…perhaps that should be the real news story.