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Food Safety News

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On Ground Beef Safety: Make Your Own

Hamburgers used to be fun. Remember that? Barbecues, picnics, casual get-togethers: fun. 



With the most recent recall of more than five million pounds of ground beef by Huntington Meat Packing Inc. over the past couple of months, to say nothing of the numerous other recalls of ground beef over the past decade, hamburger doesn’t so much say “fun” as it does “back off”. 


girls-eating-hamburgers-featured.jpgMuch of the problem lies in how ground beef is produced in the United States. As Eric Schlosser pointed out in his seminal book “Fast Food Nation” back in 2001, “A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.” Even more recent revelations about the use of ammonia to kill pathogens in fatty scrap meat added to the ground beef used everywhere from McDonald’s to public school lunches only confirms the image of ground beef as a health hazard, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of steps the home cook can take to make sure the ground beef they use is safe.



Looking for guidance, I called Josh Epple, co-owner with his brother Isaac Epple, of Drewes Bros. Meats, a venerable butcher shop in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. Although the butcher shop was first opened more than 120 years ago, the first guys who worked there back in the 1880s might not recognize their professional counterpart today: Epple’s shaved head, chin piercing, ear plugs, and sleeve tattoo aren’t exactly the recognized symbols of butchers anyplace, but Epple knows his stuff. He’s also adamant about the safest source for ground beef: a neighborhood butcher shop, of course. 



”It’s always a challenge to buy pre-ground beef,” said Epple, even for commercial outfits. The problem, of course, is that you just don’t know what you’re getting when you purchase a pound–or 100–of the stuff. When Epple grinds meat for his shop, he knows what he’s put into it and he’s accountable to his customers. That, of course, is the beauty of a neighborhood butcher shop. 



With a butcher, you not only have the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who knows his suppliers, you can ask him or her about its origins, age, and just about anything else that may concern you. Of course, none of this solves the problem for those who don’t have access to a nice, neighborhood butcher shop. If a supermarket is all you have access to, it’s worth asking the folks in your grocery store’s meat section whether they’ll grind meat to order. But if they don’t? 



”Grind your own,” said Epple. 



Grinding your own isn’t as weird as it might sound and besides giving you the assurance of knowing which piece of meat your ground beef comes from, it also has the side benefit of allowing you to determine for yourself just how lean or fatty you want the meat to be. Want to add a little more flavor? Home grinders – somehow, I don’t see the phrase catching on as easily as “home brewer” did – can also add other varieties of meat, such as pork or veal, to the batch. 



A little more labor intensive? Yes, but not problematically so. Grinding your own has another distinct advantage. Ground meat in general deteriorates much more quickly than whole muscle cuts, Epple pointed out. Grinding your own allows you to grind as much as you need and no more. 



If the thought of shelling out for a grinder intimidates you, it’s worth reconsidering. Grinders come in a wide variety of models, from hand powered to electric. If you own a KitchenAid stand mixer, you can purchase a grinder attachment for about $65. Other, free standing electric powered grinders cost anywhere from $130 to more than $300, and hand-cranked models can range from a decidedly low-end $15 to a more reassuring but certainly more expensive $215. Most of the hand-powered models, though, come in between $60 and $100.



Mincing is another useful technique. Mincing, which means to cut something–meat, vegetables, whatever–into pieces smaller than simply chopping, is handy for a variety of reasons. If you don’t need a large quantity of ground meat, mincing is easy to do. It also produces a more textured final product, ideal for meat sauces such as that Italian classic, Bolognese.

For mincing, a good knife and a thick, sturdy cutting board are essential, but it doesn’t mean rushing out to your nearest overpriced kitchen boutique and buying an outrageously expensive knife. A Chinese cleaver – a good model will set you back about $15 – is ideal (Cleavers are useful for more than just mincing and I use mine more than any of my other blades) A good quality chef’s knife works just as well.

Knowing the source of the ground meat you use, or simply taking over the task of grinding it yourself, will give you a level of control over the safety of the food in your kitchen you won’t have otherwise. It might even make hamburgers fun again.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    Remember the book about Lee Iacocca twenty years ago, when he left Ford and successfully turned around Chrysler, aided by a government loan? In the book, he said he discovered how Ford executives enjoyed such superlative hamburgers cooked by Ford’s executive chef at Ford hq’s. The chef told Lee that the chef took boneless New York Strip steaks, and ground them, making a superlative burger. This is similar to what Josh Epple does, as stated above. The chef didn’t commingle trimmings from numerous sources, add ammonia or any of a variety of antimicrobials like lactic acid. Instead, the Ford chef started with high-quality, intact cuts, and ground it straight, with no added ingredients.
    The article above states that some meat sections in your local grocery store might grind to order. If so, both the meat section and you, the consumer, can develop more confidence in the quality of the burger you serve your family. However, there are dangers inherent in grinding to order, which need to be discussed.
    If you visit your local meat market later in the day, let’s say at 1:00 pm, and they are willing to grind an intact cut for you, let’s say a boneless chuck or boneless round, the grinder will have already been used earlier in the day and is laden with residual bacteria remaining from numerous sources previously ground that day. So, it’s best to place your specialized order in advance, and demand that it is ground up the very first thing in the day.
    Secondly, a well-hidden fact is that USDA/FSIS allows the large slaughter plants to ship into commerce intact cuts of beef which are surface-contaminated with E.coli. The agency’s stance is that such resident e.coli are NOT adulterants, when found on the surface of intact cuts. Therefore, when the downstream processing establishment such as your local meat market removes the intact cut from its vacuum-sealed bag, your local butcher innocently inherits invisible bacteria which arrived at his store in boxes proudly bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected & Passed”. Sorry folks, but USDA knowingly endorses the right of slaughter plants to ship adulterated meat into commerce, bearing the mark. Now follow the agency’s logic in this sordid scenario: when your local butcher then grinds that intact cut to fill your specialized order, he grinds the invisible E.coli and unwittingly spreads the pathogen throughout the entire batch of burger, which you take home with increased assurance that it will be wholesome. If your family gets sick, and subsequent investigations prove that your specially-made burger harbors the pathogen, then, yes, you guessed it, USDA assigns full liability against your local butcher for producing adulterated ground beef.
    During a noon luncheon at a meat conference in Chicago on September 17, 2008, Dr. Richard Raymond gave a speech to the attendees. At the time, Dr. Raymond was the USDA Under-Secretary for FSIS, the meat inspection branch of USDA. He stated that the agency had recently opened up 24 vacuum-packed cuts of intact meat, and tested them for E.coli. Of the 24, 8 tested positive for E.coli. Not very good odds for your local butcher, is it?
    I’d like to provide one idea to Josh Epple, and to any consumer who wants not only to know where your meat came from, but also wants safe meat, and wants to “know their butcher”. Buy all your meat from an inspected, small, local slaughter plant, most if not all of which can comply with specialized demands from local consumers. Large slaughter plants have high-speed kill chains, greatly increasing the likelihood of pathogens being undetected during the kill process. The high speed creates the absolute necessity for a variety of anti-microbial interventions at the large kill plants, such as steam pasteurization, hide-on carcass washes, lactic acid sprays, ad infinitum. Plants which employ such “multiple hurdle pathogen interventions” still find e.coli on their carcasses, and in their intact cuts which they ship into commerce. (Remember the 8 in 24 statement made by Dr. Raymond). In stark contrast, small, locally-owned kill plants have snail-paced production speeds on their kill floors, enabling employees to visually detect and manually remove “most” contaminants. Their final wash system successfully removes any invisible bacteria. Small kill plants don’t have the multitude of problems inherent at small plants, such as high-speed removal of hides which fling tiny airborne contaminants throughout the room, as well as the inability to intensely check for and remove visible contaminants as the carcasses whiz by at speeds too fast to enable intensive inspection and cleansing. Since the small, local packer sells only into a local and/or regional area, he frequently knows all his customers, and is overly cautious because he knows his reputation will be ruined if he produces unwholesome meat. He also knows that if his customers get sick, he and he alone will be blamed, a situation which does not exist at your local grocery store which purchases meat from a variety of suppliers.
    Granted, you may have to drive 30 minutes out into the countryside to find a small, inspected packing plant, but I suggest the health of your family is worth it. If such a plant is 90 miles away, the solution is then to purchase a month’s supply at a time, and perhaps to combine your purchase with a friend who shares the same health concerns, and you can take turns driving those 90 miles to pick up wholesome, single-source meat again, as our ancestors did 60 years ago.
    This situation will continue to deteriorate, as we inexorably head into a global meat trading system, in which the large multinational meat companies visualize a global pool of undifferentiated and amorphous protein absent any labeling system which reveals the country of origin. When you purchase meat from your local grocery store, the burger may emanate from dozens of animals from various countries, most of which have meat production and inspection systems greatly inferior to America’s. Who cares? Price is the ultimate focal point of our food marketers, at the expense of food safety.
    Bottom line: purchase your meat from a local, small, federally inspected or state inspected meat plant where you can look directly into the owner’s eyes, and ask if he can fill your customized order with beef/pork/lamb etc which he purchased from local producers, and killed himself. If he won’t look you in the eye, and fails to provide ample answers, go elsewhere. When you purchase his meat, and couple it with safe food handling procedures in your kitchen, you can confidently feed your family with wholesome, and safe, meat.
    John Munsell

  • Eric, buying from a local butcher or grinding your own MAY well give you some level of confidence that the hamburger does not have E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella or some other bug that can sicken or kill you. However, the best prevention is to handle the meat carefully (not sure how you can do that grinding your own in you home? – huge risks of cross-contamination)and to cook it to an internal temperature of 155 degrees – use a thermometer.

  • Ann Quinn, consumer

    A meat person on Twitter suggested to me that
    if I blanched the whole muscle cut in boiling
    water for 30 seconds prior to grinding it at home
    that that may eliminate many pathogens. That would
    be prior to home-grinding or any other processing.
    It does affect a little some texture, but not much.
    I’d have to leave it to food safety experts to further
    comment on effectiveness.

  • John Munsell

    Remember the book about Lee Iacocca twenty years ago, when he left Ford and successfully turned around Chrysler, aided by a government loan? In the book, he said he discovered how Ford executives enjoyed such superlative hamburgers cooked by Ford’s executive chef at Ford hq’s. The chef told Lee that the chef took boneless New York Strip steaks, and ground them, making a superlative burger. This is similar to what Josh Epple does, as stated above. The chef didn’t commingle trimmings from numerous sources, add ammonia or any of a variety of antimicrobials like lactic acid. Instead, the Ford chef started with high-quality, intact cuts, and ground it straight, with no added ingredients.
    The article above states that some meat sections in your local grocery store might grind to order. If so, both the meat section and you, the consumer, can develop more confidence in the quality of the burger you serve your family. However, there are dangers inherent in grinding to order, which need to be discussed.
    If you visit your local meat market later in the day, let’s say at 1:00 pm, and they are willing to grind an intact cut for you, let’s say a boneless chuck or boneless round, the grinder will have already been used earlier in the day and is laden with residual bacteria remaining from numerous sources previously ground that day. So, it’s best to place your specialized order in advance, and demand that it is ground up the very first thing in the day.
    Secondly, a well-hidden fact is that USDA/FSIS allows the large slaughter plants to ship into commerce intact cuts of beef which are surface-contaminated with E.coli. The agency’s stance is that such resident e.coli are NOT adulterants, when found on the surface of intact cuts. Therefore, when the downstream processing establishment such as your local meat market removes the intact cut from its vacuum-sealed bag, your local butcher innocently inherits invisible bacteria which arrived at his store in boxes proudly bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected & Passed”. Sorry folks, but USDA knowingly endorses the right of slaughter plants to ship adulterated meat into commerce, bearing the mark. Now follow the agency’s logic in this sordid scenario: when your local butcher then grinds that intact cut to fill your specialized order, he grinds the invisible E.coli and unwittingly spreads the pathogen throughout the entire batch of burger, which you take home with increased assurance that it will be wholesome. If your family gets sick, and subsequent investigations prove that your specially-made burger harbors the pathogen, then, yes, you guessed it, USDA assigns full liability against your local butcher for producing adulterated ground beef.
    During a noon luncheon at a meat conference in Chicago on September 17, 2008, Dr. Richard Raymond gave a speech to the attendees. At the time, Dr. Raymond was the USDA Under-Secretary for FSIS, the meat inspection branch of USDA. He stated that the agency had recently opened up 24 vacuum-packed cuts of intact meat, and tested them for E.coli. Of the 24, 8 tested positive for E.coli. Not very good odds for your local butcher, is it?
    I’d like to provide one idea to Josh Epple, and to any consumer who wants not only to know where your meat came from, but also wants safe meat, and wants to “know their butcher”. Buy all your meat from an inspected, small, local slaughter plant, most if not all of which can comply with specialized demands from local consumers. Large slaughter plants have high-speed kill chains, greatly increasing the likelihood of pathogens being undetected during the kill process. The high speed creates the absolute necessity for a variety of anti-microbial interventions at the large kill plants, such as steam pasteurization, hide-on carcass washes, lactic acid sprays, ad infinitum. Plants which employ such “multiple hurdle pathogen interventions” still find e.coli on their carcasses, and in their intact cuts which they ship into commerce. (Remember the 8 in 24 statement made by Dr. Raymond). In stark contrast, small, locally-owned kill plants have snail-paced production speeds on their kill floors, enabling employees to visually detect and manually remove “most” contaminants. Their final wash system successfully removes any invisible bacteria. Small kill plants don’t have the multitude of problems inherent at small plants, such as high-speed removal of hides which fling tiny airborne contaminants throughout the room, as well as the inability to intensely check for and remove visible contaminants as the carcasses whiz by at speeds too fast to enable intensive inspection and cleansing. Since the small, local packer sells only into a local and/or regional area, he frequently knows all his customers, and is overly cautious because he knows his reputation will be ruined if he produces unwholesome meat. He also knows that if his customers get sick, he and he alone will be blamed, a situation which does not exist at your local grocery store which purchases meat from a variety of suppliers.
    Granted, you may have to drive 30 minutes out into the countryside to find a small, inspected packing plant, but I suggest the health of your family is worth it. If such a plant is 90 miles away, the solution is then to purchase a month’s supply at a time, and perhaps to combine your purchase with a friend who shares the same health concerns, and you can take turns driving those 90 miles to pick up wholesome, single-source meat again, as our ancestors did 60 years ago.
    This situation will continue to deteriorate, as we inexorably head into a global meat trading system, in which the large multinational meat companies visualize a global pool of undifferentiated and amorphous protein absent any labeling system which reveals the country of origin. When you purchase meat from your local grocery store, the burger may emanate from dozens of animals from various countries, most of which have meat production and inspection systems greatly inferior to America’s. Who cares? Price is the ultimate focal point of our food marketers, at the expense of food safety.
    Bottom line: purchase your meat from a local, small, federally inspected or state inspected meat plant where you can look directly into the owner’s eyes, and ask if he can fill your customized order with beef/pork/lamb etc which he purchased from local producers, and killed himself. If he won’t look you in the eye, and fails to provide ample answers, go elsewhere. When you purchase his meat, and couple it with safe food handling procedures in your kitchen, you can confidently feed your family with wholesome, and safe, meat.
    John Munsell

  • pdmerwin

    Is it ok for the butcher to wrap brown meat, ground who knows when, in a thin layer of meat that he grinds on the spot? Years ago a butcher I trusted said he had forbidden that when I told him one of his workers was doing it.

  • Corey

    I’m not sure about wrapping the brown meat with fresh meat (especially if the consumer is not aware), but the brown meat, as long as it isn’t slimy or has a distinct off odor, is ok to eat. The browning occurs because of interactions of myoglobin in the meat with the air, making deoxymyoglobin (I think that’s that one, someone correct me if I’m wrong) which has a brown color instead of a pink/red one, some manufacturers get around this by using modified atmosphere packaging (the rigid plastic containers of ground beef that are sealed tight) and they include a fraction of a percent of carbon monoxide into the air mixture, which has a higher affinity to the myoglobin molecule than oxygen, so it will stick around longer, and it has a nice red color. So all in all, not to blame the consumer or anything, but if the consumer was to handle everything properly and cook things to the proper temperature (ground meat 155 – use a thermometer!) then there would be no/minimal problems with ground beef. The bacteria are on the surface of the whole cuts of meat, the inside remains completely sterile until you do something like grind the meat, which turns the outside into the inside and vise/versa. This is why you can eat a steak safer rare than a burger. Thats my two cents :)… for what it’s worth I am a food scientist.