Study searches for dangerous bacteria in some ground beef

Is there dangerous bacteria in beef?
Published: Nov. 2, 2015 at 3:06 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 5, 2015 at 9:41 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - At Salem Hills Farm in Marshville, NC, the cows eat better than most people.

"They graze on this special grass.  I can show you closely, and you'll smell it, it smells sweet.  The pastures are our priority.  Trash in, trash out and the same goes for these cows," said Julius Price who runs the operation with his brother Rossi.

Along with the special diet, their cows are not given any antibiotics unless they are sick.  All of the practices the Price brothers have put into place allow them to call themselves purveyors of grass-fed beef.  They believe the beef they raise, process, and sell is healthier for their customers.

In some cases it appears a new report shows evidence of that.  Consumer Reports finds there may be dangerous bacteria in the ground beef you buy, bring home, and cook for your family.

Consumer Reports sent nearly 500 pounds of ground beef to a lab to be tested for several types of bacteria.  The meat was purchased at stores and from vendors from across the country.  It came from farms where cows are raised "conventionally", typically being fed grain and soy and given antibiotics, and from farms where the cows are raised in a more "sustainable" way which would not include antibiotics and in many cases were fed only grass.

The lab looked for clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin-producing strains), enterococcus, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus.

While this is vital information for all of us, if you like your beef on the rare side the test, and the smaller scale companion test we conducted at WBTV through a lab in Miami,  should be particularly interesting to you.

The WBTV test involved six pounds of ground beef from several local sellers sent to a lab to test for the same bacteria for which the Consumer Reports study tested.

The Consumer Reports study indicated the way a cow is raised, fed and eventually slaughtered and processed determines how much bacteria is found in the raw meat.

The beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as antibiotic resistant bacteria, than beef from sustainably raised cows.

"The conventional samples were more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as antibiotic resistant bacteria, than beef from sustainably raised cows.  For example, the conventional samples had about 55% ecoli and the more sustainable samples had about 27% of ecoli rates," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports Food Safety Expert.

She indicates the antibiotic resistance is due to the cows at conventional farms being fed a daily dose of antibiotics, enough to keep their surroundings from causing them to fall ill, but not enough to completely kill the bacteria.

"18% of the bacteria we found on conventional samples were resistant to three or more antibiotic classes and that compared to 9% found on more sustainable samples," Rangan added.

The smaller-scale WBTV test showed a different result.

"The samples appear to be wholesome and seem to show they are safe and free of pathogenic bacteria," said Dr. Peter Kmiek with Kappa Laboratories.

He added there were a couple of instances of listeria found but not the kind that will make you sick.

Kmiek pointed out the larger issue of farm to table.

"Beside how the cows are being raised and grazing, how they are being processed is of utmost importance as well," he said.

Consumer Reports suggests larger processing facilities have a harder time keeping up with cleanliness standards than the smaller facilities sustainable farmers tend to use, allowing for more bacteria to creep into packaged products.

It is important for consumers to understand it's likely all beef will have some bacteria which will be killed if the meat is cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees.  Experts also warn against ground beef that has started to turn grey in the package, it should be pink.

"For consumers we are able to direct them to labels like organic or grass fed for their families.  We would even prefer they try to find labels that promise no antibiotics used in the animals.  That is the first rung up in terms of how much more sustainable you can get," Rangan said.

The issue for many consumers is the cost to their bottom line as sustainably produced beef is more expensive, sometimes twice as much so, as conventionally raised beef.

To see the full results of the Consumer Reports study, click here.  To see the results of the WBTV tests, click here.

Before you watch the web exclusive video on this page, give yourself a little quiz.  Do you know what "grass fed - grain finished" means?  How about "grain finished - grass fed"?  Or even "organically certified"?  Go ahead and watch the video on this page to see if you were right.

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