With its newly released study, Consumer Reports is arguing that ground beef from sustainably raised cows is safer than that from conventionally raised ones. Industry, however, says that the study shows low levels of pathogens in meat. The consumer organization tested ground beef samples for bacteria and found that all of it contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli). Twenty percent contained Clostridium perfringens, and 10 percent contained a strain of toxin-producing Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Just 1 percent of samples contained Salmonella. What Consumer Reports found most troubling was that beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, than beef from sustainably raised cows. Eighteen percent of the ground beef samples from conventionally raised cows and 9 percent of ground beef from samples that were sustainably produced were found to contain superbugs resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics used to treat human illnesses. Consumer Reports tested 300 packages — 458 pounds — of conventionally and sustainably produced ground beef from grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country for C. perfringens, seven dangerous strains of E. coli, Enterococcus, Salmonella and S. aureus. According to Consumer Reports, the sustainably produced beef came from cows raised without antibiotics and, in some cases, were either fed organic, grass-fed, or both. “Farming animals without antibiotics is the first step toward a more sustainable system,” said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “Grass-fed animals and good welfare practices produce fewer public health risks.” They recommend that people buy sustainably raised beef whenever possible. On the industry side of things, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said that the study “confirms that pathogenic bacteria is rarely found in meat,” adding that, “Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria.” NAMI was concerned that antibiotic resistance findings were “alarmist and misleading.” “What is most important to know is whether certain pathogenic bacteria are resistant to certain types of antibiotics, but Consumer Reports has not specified this information in the materials shared with the industry,” NAMI said. “USDA’s food safety inspectors work in every meat facility, every day, to reduce illnesses across all products we regulate, and we’re proud to report that illnesses attributed to those items dropped by 10 percent from 2013 to 2014,” a USDA spokesperson said in response to the report. “Measures taken to improve ground beef safety include a zero-tolerance policy for six dangerous strains of E. coli, better procedures for detecting the source of outbreaks, improved laboratory testing, and more.” Regardless of what type of ground beef you buy, remember to cook that meat to at least 160 degrees F in order to kill any harmful bacteria, properly store leftovers at less than 40 degrees F, and reheat to 165 degrees F.
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