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Consumer Reports Ground Beef Study Confirms Strong Safety of Ground Beef

Monday, August 24, 2015

No Reported Findings of Highly Pathogenic E. Coli Suggests Ground Beef is as Safe as Ever

Washington, D.C., —A review of Consumer Reports’ new study on the safety of ground beef in the U.S. confirms that pathogenic bacteria is rarely found in meat, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said today. The bacteria identified in the Consumer Reports testing are types that rarely cause foodborne illness. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria.

“The real headline here is 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,” said North American Meat Institute Vice President of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren, Ph.D.

“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. 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.”

U.S. meat companies produce billions of pounds of ground beef annually, which is routinely sampled by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in meat plants for E. coli O157:H7. FSIS data shows that E. coli O157:H7 occurs at a rate of less than one tenth of one percent in ground beef products. Other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli have been found by USDA in just one percent of raw ground beef components so far this year. Any product that tests positive does not enter the marketplace. FSIS has also tested for Salmonella in recent years with a positive rate of less than one percent in 2015. In addition to FSIS tests for these pathogens, the industry regularly tests for them independently to ensure a safe product is being produced.

Antibiotic Resistance Findings Alarmist and Misleading

While the results make clear the safety of beef, Consumer Reports’ claims about antibiotic resistance and its prevalence in products from different production methods is far less clear. Antibiotic resistance is common in nature—it has been found in permafrost that has been untouched by humans and animals. It’s presence in bacteria is expected. 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.

The Food and Drug Administration has said that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease and have natural resistances, such as Enterococcus.

“Just because a bacterium is resistant to one, two or even three antibiotics doesn’t necessarily make it a superbug,” said Dr. Booren. “Superbugs are bacteria that are no longer treatable with antibiotics. The important aspect to look at isn’t the resistance itself, but whether that resistance is a public health danger.”

Of far more value is the recent National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System Report which found that about 80 percent of human Salmonella isolates are not resistant to any of the tested antibiotics, a finding that has not changed in the past 10 years and resistance to ceftriaxone, azithromycin and quinolones, three important drugs used to treat human Salmonella isolates, remains below 3 percent. Salmonella multi-drug resistance (resistance to three or more classes of antibiotics) in human, cattle and chicken isolates has not changed (at about 10 percent) in the last decade.

In fact Consumer Reports’ most important recommendation for consumers is to cook all ground beef, whether conventional, organic or grass fed to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Any bacteria, antibiotic resistant or not, are killed when cooked to the recommended temperature. Consumers are urged to use a meat thermometer to confirm doneness and properly store products before and after cooking since bacteria can multiply at temperatures above 40 degrees.

The North American Meat Institute has several resources on ground beef handling and safety including avideo with tips on proper thermometer use and another onhow ground beef is made. NAMI also features Meat Mythcrushers materials on thesafety of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef and the myth that superbugs are common on meat and poultry products.

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