WASHINGTON – Consumer Reports is touting ground beef from grass-fed organic cattle as safer than beef produced by conventional methods. Consumer Reports’ cover story in its October issue carries the headline: “Wanted: Safe Beef,” which includes an overview on claims made on labels of beef products as well as shopping tips for consumers that favor grass-fed ground beef. But organizations representing the beef industry said a closer analysis of Consumer Reports’ findings revealed that ground beef tested by Consumer Reports didn’t contain highly pathogenic strains of E. coli and Salmonella which seems to support the meat industry’s argument that ground beef is safer than ever.
In its recent report called “How Safe is Your Ground Beef?” Consumer Reports said beef from conventionally raised cattle was more likely to contain bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus.
Consumer Reports tested 300 packages of ground beef its researchers purchased from grocery stores, big-box retailers and natural food stores in 26 cities across the United States. The organization reported finding bacteria on all of the beef samples it tested. But Consumer Reports is suggesting that ground beef produced from organic and grass-fed cattle is safer than ground beef produced by conventional methods. The organization defined “sustainably-produced” beef as meat from cattle raised without antibiotics and in some cases were either organic, grass-fed or both. The conventionally raised beef samples came from cattle that “live on feedlots” and can be “regularly fed antibiotics, as well as animal waste and other by-products.”
“Better ways of producing beef from farm to fork have real impact on the health and safety of our food and the animals themselves,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Farming animals without antibiotics is the first step toward a more sustainable system. Grass-fed animals and good welfare practices produce fewer public health risks.”
But the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said what Consumer Reports didn’t find was equally important — no Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or highly pathogenic Salmonella, which are the greatest public health concern in beef.
“Bacteria occur naturally on all raw food products from beef to blueberries so finding certain types on some foods in a grocery store is not surprising and should not be concerning,” Betsy Booren, Ph.D., and vice president of scientific affairs at NAMI said in a statement . “As an industry, our number one priority is producing the safest meat and poultry possible and this is done by focusing attention on bacteria which are most likely to make people sick, particularly Shiga toxin-producing E. coli and Salmonella. It is telling that Consumer Reports did not highlight finding these bacteria on products they tested, which is a strong indication of the overall safety of beef.”
NAMI also said Consumer Reports’ findings on antibiotic-resistant bacteria were “alarmist and misleading.” Antibiotic resistance is common in nature, the organization noted, and its presence in bacteria is expected. However, Consumer Reports’ claims are alarmist and misleading because resistance to one or a few antibiotics doesn’t necessarily make a bacterium a “superbug.”
“Superbugs are bacteria that are no longer treatable with antibiotics,” Dr. Booren said. “The important aspect to look at isn’t the resistance itself, but whether that resistance is a public health danger.”
Consumer Reports tested beef samples for Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other toxin producing strains), Enterococcus, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. Consumer Reports also found that:
• More than 80 percent of the conventional beef samples contained two types of bacteria.
• Nearly 20 percent of the beef samples contained illness-causing C. perfringens.
• Ten percent of the beef samples contained a strain of toxin-producing S. aureus bacteria that cannot be destroyed with proper cooking.
“Among the best options to choose are beef products labeled “grass-fed organic,” which ensures the cattle have not been fed grain and eat only organically grown grass and forage and have not received any antibiotics or hormones,” the report states.
The organization also recommended that consumers look for “meaningful animal welfare labels” when purchasing ground beef. Meaningful labels, according to Consumer Reports, include “no antibiotics,” “grass-fed,” “organic,” and “American Grassfed Association.”
But NAMI said Consumer Reports’ most important recommendation for consumers is to properly cook ground beef of any kind to 160° F and to use a meat thermometer.