Recently, an article came across my desk from one of my meat industry news updates about JBS meat packing looking into using robots to process swine and lamb carcasses initially, with beef to eventually follow. In college I spent a lot of time in packing plants collecting beef carcass data, meat, and other tissues needed for samples. While I think it can be done, I think there may be some challenges (i.e. animal welfare, food safety, lack of human element) that will have to be overcome before we are ready to turn over meat processing to robots.
Below is a summation of articles from Harvest Media News and NPR on meat cutting robots. What are your thoughts about this high tech and revolutionary idea?
Beef carcasses. Source: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout the country employ about a quarter of a million persons. Some of those workers that prepare the beef, pork, and chicken that ends up on dinner tables could eventually be replaced by robots. The world’s largest meatpacking company (JBS, the Brazil-based protein powerhouse) is looking at ways to automate the art of butchery.
Late last fall, JBS bought a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. While many manufacturers have gone to automated machines to process and package everything from food to furniture, the beef industry has held onto its workers. It takes thousands of workers to run a modern beef plant. In fact, U.S. meatpacking plants are expected to add jobs in the next decade, as the appetite for pork, chicken, and beef grows in the developing world.
Disassembly is the name of the game on the fabrication floor at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. Workers hold a knife in one hand, and their sharpening steel is close to their side. Line workers are dressed in chainmail, a protective mesh lining under white jackets (frocks/smocks) and aprons. Deft cuts cleave bone and meat, turning a whole cow into neat and trim cuts like tenderloins, steaks, and roasts.
“There’s right now 850 people out in this building alone,” says plant manager Bill Danley as he weaves through the maze of conveyor belts, stainless steel slides, and bone bins. The plant is a far cry from your grandfather’s butcher shop, where a single person would need to know how to turn an entire animal into cuts of meat. Large beef companies like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson have turned each minute step of the process into a job. Danley lists some of the titles: chuck boner, tender puller, back splitter, knuckle dropper, and tail ripper. “There’s a lot of jobs out here that prep for the other person,” Danley says.
Each year JBS pays out more than $100 million in paychecks to its 3,000 employees. It’s a huge chunk of the company’s operating costs. That could begin to change with JBS’ new venture into the world of robotics. “This is a very innovative and exciting company that we invested in,” JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett says of the company’s investment in Scott Technology. “And we’re excited to see what they’ll come up with.”
JBS is looking at how robots could fit into its lamb and pork plants first, Bruett says. Sheep and pigs tend to be more uniform than beef cattle. “Now when it comes to beef packing, beef processing, the fabrication of the animal, it’s very difficult to automate beef processing,” Bruett says. The various breeds of cattle brought into the plant also complicate the future of robots in meatpacking. Some days the plant breaks down the long, lanky bodies of Holsteins. Other days they’re working on sturdy, thickset Angus and Hereford. Robots would need the ability to adjust to the spectrum of cattle breeds.
The meatpacking robots of today use vision technology to slice and dice, but the key to butchery is touch, not sight. JBS’s beef division president, Bill Rupp, says right now, robots just can’t feel how deep a bone is, or expertly remove a filet mignon. “When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren’t there yet. Someday, I’m sure they will be,” Rupp says. “It can’t do the fine cutting that you see on the fab floor, that’s one of the big challenges right now.” Robotic technology doesn’t have the fine motor skills that come easily to humans and there isn’t room for error. Some of the cuts being boxed up bring upward of $14 per pound, Rupp explains, so the key is being able to leave it on the meat and not on the bone. “I mean that’s how our business works.”
The technology isn’t quite ready for a massive roll out, but could the economics of widespread robotic use in the beef industry ever work? Not any time soon, says Don Stull, an anthropologist who spent 30 years studying the cultures of meatpacking towns at the University of Kansas. “Workers are really cheaper than machines,” Stull says. “Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive.” There’s a stream of immigrants and refugees, most from Somalia, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Guatemala, ready to put on the chainmail and pick up the knife, Stull says. In large, modern plants, companies pay less because the skill needed to work on the fabrication floor is so low. Some jobs take less than a week to fully master. Turnover in the industry is high, Stull points out, because of the physical demands. Slicing meat all day can lead to repetitive injuries. JBS employs an athletic trainer to keep employees limber and fit. Stull says it’s still common for workers to transfer jobs at the same plant to make better money or to just avoid falling apart. “After you do the same thing thousands of times a day, six days a week … your body wears down,” Stull says.
While the industry says it has dramatically improved on worker safety over the years, meatpacking jobs consistently rank among the most hazardous in the country. Workers stand along conveyor belts on raised platforms, adjustable based on each person’s height. Those platforms were a big step in improving ergonomic conditions for workers, Danley says. Increased automation could ease some of those injuries.
Meat processing makes up a huge portion of Great Plains communities’ rural economies, what happens inside meat processing plants affects not only the companies involved, but the very culture of rural America.
Until technology catches up in both skill and costs, meatpacking companies will continue hiring workers to turn cattle, chickens, and hogs into cuts of meat.
My name is Brandon Morrison, I am a Powerlifter and Strongman, and I have been running LBEB (Lift Big Eat Big) for 4 years now. I graduated from Seattle University with a degree in historical theology and religious studies. Now, that doesn’t really have anything to do with lifting, but there is much more to me than lifting. I am the biggest (literally) history buff you will ever meet, and I have an insatiable appetite for more knowledge!
What role does animal protein play in your life?
Animal protein plays a big part in my life. In addition to hunting with my father or brothers most years, I use animal proteins in most of my cooking videos, and they are usually the centerpiece of the meal. In addition to simply cooking it, I like to study the different cuts of the animal, and learn how the animal’s lifestyle can influence the taste or texture of the meat. For example, I recently have been learning about the sleeping positions of cattle, and which side they favor to rest on. The side that they rest on can greatly influence the composition of a brisket. If a cow tends to rest on their right side, as I believe the average cow does, the right brisket will be much tougher than the left brisket. For this reason, I like to buy left briskets whenever I can!
Do you have any agriculture experience?
I unfortunately do not have much agricultural experience worth discussing. However, I like to get my ag information from experts in the field, rather than Facebook scare tactic photos. 🙂
How did you get into the culinary arts?
I got into the culinary arts for a few reasons:
#1. Cooking gives me an immediate sense of gratification, which I do tend to enjoy more than I should.
#2. I need something to obsess over, and since cooking can always be improved, it fulfills my needs.
#3. I am constantly bombarded with new ideas in my mind, and it can create for a very stressful life. With cooking, though, I can put these new ideas to use, as quickly as they come. For example, last Saturday I made 9 different meals, just for fun and practice.
#4. I love discussing the mouthfeel of food, what it reminds people of, what can be improved, and most importantly, I love when people enjoy food!
What is your favorite thing to make?
Right now my favorite thing to make is biscuits. Actually, no, I love biscuits, but I am obsessed with cooking pasta in a risotto-style right now. Basically, this means that instead of boiling pasta in water until cooked, you heat butter and the pasta in a hot pan, and have 1/2 gallon of chicken stock heated in another pan. You will add 1 cup of hot stock to the noodle pan, about every 3 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. It will completely change the way you make pasta, any pasta. I’ll never go back!
If you could master any food dish what would it be?
If I could master any dish, it would have to be a simple Chinese dish. While some Chinese dishes may SEEM simple, in reality, you almost need an entire second kitchen’s worth of tools and ingredients. I have made Chinese bao buns, which turned out great, but I would really enjoy making great dim sum from complete scratch. I will get there, eventually. 🙂
What a fun interview! A seat at Brandon’s table would be a foodie’s dream. Brandon, the agriculturists of the world thank you for your support!
Bacon, the candy of the meat world, and other processed meats (i.e. ham, hotdog, sausage, salami, chorizo, deli meats, corned beef, jerky, canned meat) were recently categorized as Group 1 Carcinogens (carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), because of a causal link with bowel cancer. Other Group 1 Carcinogens include arsenic, tobacco, sunlight, alcohol, asbestos, and leather and wood dust. Red meat is listed as a Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans), along with grilled food and the profession of a hairdresser. The entire list of carcinogens can be found here.
The WHO defines “processed” asmeat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood (I don’t know about you, but these are common methods I use to prepare food at my home…). Additionally, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) has an excellent article on Processed Meats: Convenience, Nutrition, Taste.
Processed meats are important. The ingredients and processes used to make hotdogs and bacon and sausage are about more than creating tasty treats to eat at tailgates. Processed meats help us to use meat more efficiently, waste less food and feed more people.
Processed meats allow us to use the whole animal. There are lots of cuts on the animal that wouldn’t taste very good if we just tried to cook them like fresh meat. They may be too tough, too small, or too fatty. Meat processors grind them up and mix them all together to make sausages and hotdogs.
Processed meats allow us to store meat for longer times. Ingredients like salt, sugar, and nitrites help fend off bacteria that cause it to go bad. They also keep it from becoming rancid. Think about how long hotdogs and ham last in the fridge in comparison to fresh steaks and burgers.
Processed meats are a good source of inexpensive protein. Foods like hotdogs and sausages are inexpensive, but they provide protein. People need that protein, especially kids. Protein helps you feel fuller, longer after a meal. It also helps build and repair muscles as kids grow. Research has shown that kids fed protein perform better in school. In some poor families, processed meats are the only way they can afford to feed their kids protein.
Processed meats help prevent food-borne illness. Ingredients like salt and lactates help keep dangerous bacteria, like Listeria, from growing, and nitrites are added to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes Botulism.
Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
Meat consists of multiple components, such as heme iron. Meat can also contain chemicals that form during meat processing or cooking. For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Cooking of red meat or processed meat also produces heterocyclic aromatic amines as well as other chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also found in other foods and in air pollution. Some of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens, but despite this knowledge it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased by red meat or processed meat.
The IARC experts indicated that each 50 gram (1.8 ounce) serving (about 1 hotdog or 3 strips of bacon) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The Guardian reported:
Dr Elizabeth Lund – an independent consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health, and a former research leader at the Institute of Food Research, who acknowledges she did some work for the meat industry in 2010 – said red meat was linked to about three extra cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 adults in developed countries. “A much bigger risk factor is obesity and lack of exercise,” she said. “Overall, I feel that eating meat once a day combined with plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereal fiber, plus exercise and weight control, will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer and a more balanced diet.”
Dr. Betsy Booren, NAMI (North American Meat Institute) said, “Followers of the Mediterranean diet eat double the recommended amount of processed meats. People in countries where the Mediterranean diet is followed, like Spain, Italy and France, have some of the longest lifespans in the world and excellent health.”
Let’s examine the real risk. The average person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer is approximately 5%. If the WHO data suggesting an 18% increase in risk is correct, a daily 50 g serving of processed meat increases that risk to 5.9 % (an increase slightly less than 1 people per 100), of which between 0.65 – 5.4 people will survive for 5 years or more (depending on cancer stage at diagnosis). Despite the increase in meat consumption over the past century (and therefore assumed increase in processed meat consumption due to changes in dining habits and food availability), the death rate from colorectal cancer has dropped over the past 20 years. Moreover, in media articles discussing the WHO announcement, there is no mention of mitigating factors such as fruit and vegetable consumption. What happens if I eat 50 g of bacon within a huge salad with a side of oat bread, a meal high in dietary fiber, which is cited as having a protective effect against colorectal cancer? Or if I eat bacon after running five miles, given the role of exercise in preventing cancer? As with so many other health risks, it’s almost impossible to assess the impact of meat consumption in isolation.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President, Phillip Ellis, had this to say about the claims:
Let me be clear, this group did not conduct new research during their meeting, they simply reviewed existing evidence, including six studies submitted by the beef checkoff. That evidence had already been reviewed and weighed by the medical and scientific community. The science reviewed by IARC simply does not support their decision.
We know that there isn’t clear evidence to support IARC’s decision because the beef checkoff has commissioned independent studies on the topic for a decade. In fact, countless studies have been conducted by cancer and medical experts and they have all determined the same thing: No one food can cause or cure cancer. But that hasn’t prevented IARC from deciding otherwise. This conclusion isn’t mine alone and you can evaluate the information for yourself. We’ve posted the studies reviewed by IARC and other information about the committee’s findings on the website: factsaboutbeef.com. At NCBA, our team of experts has also been working with our state partners and other industry organizations to ensure consumers understand what the science really shows.
Since IARC began meeting in 1979, these experts have reviewed more than 900 compounds, products and factors for possible correlation with cancer. To date, only one product (caprolactam, which is a chemical primarily used to create synthetic fibers like nylon) has been granted a rating of 4, which indicates it is “probably not carcinogenic to humans.” Most other factors or products that have been examined by the body, including glyphosate, aloe vera, nightshift work and sunlight have fallen into three categories: 2B “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans,” or 1 “carcinogenic to humans.”
Overwhelmingly, the reaction by most people has been “oh well”, no one is quite ready to give up bacon yet. The NAMI gathered some feedback and quotes from people around the world on the announcement. To read those comments go here.
Charred (blackened or burnt) meat can contribute to carcinogenic effects. Facts About Beef recommends that when cooking meat it is very important to monitor heat level and doneness temperatures of meat, poultry, and fish. Additionally, making lean beef part of your diet can provide the nutritious health benefits and healthy fat, which can help reduce the risk of cancer! Read more at Facts About Beef.
I would venture to guess there are very few people on this planet that do not know someone affected by cancer. It is a serious and complicated disease – no one really knows what causes it or how to prevent it. As the commercials indicate, one bite of kale or one sit up are not enough to keep us healthy and disease free forever. Everything, literally everything, could potentially give us cancer — stress, lack of sleep, age, our gender, genetics, smoking, our weight, activity level, career, family, lifestyle hormones, phones, alcohol, food, etc. It is virtually impossible to identify one food that can cause or prevent cancer, thus making discussions on red meat being a possible carcinogen a challenge for experts to reach consensus.
To date, scientists and health professionals agree that maintaining a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and being a non-smoker can reduce the risk of cancer. While processed meats have been added to the list of carcinogenic items, the science is divided on these claims. Until we know why or how cancer and processed meats are linked, moderation seems like a very reasonable suggestion.
Once again another company has fallen victim to the “no antibiotics ever” marketing ploy. Just like you, me, our families, and our pets, food animals get sick. When they do, a diagnosis of illness is made and that animal receives quick medical attention, and probably an antibiotic. Cattle, poultry, pork (insert other animal protein sources here) farmers and ranchers closely follow antibiotic withdrawal dates, meaning there are NO antibiotics in your meat, milk, or eggs! Trust me, these products are regularly tested for residues. Once the animal has made a full recovery it’s protein is completely safe and wholesome to enter the food supply. Can you imagine a “no antibiotic ever” world where animal health declines and animals suffer (and die) from their illness because end markets like Subway won’t accept the meat if the animal has been treated for illness? As a 4th generation agriculturalist, I will not let any animal suffer or die under my watch just so a food company, such as Subway can make a few people who think this is a good idea happy.
I am reblogging a post that Anne Burkholder just put out. Anne is a feedlot owner and cattle farmer, who raises and cares for a thousands of animals every year.
Other posts discussing this issue can be found at:
Tuesday, Subway restaurants made the announcement that beginning in March 2016 it will serve chicken raised without antibiotics. Further, the company will source turkey, pork and beef in the same manner within a 10 year period. A spokesman for Subway stated that company’s goal is “eliminating antibiotics from all of its meat supplies within 10 years”.
There are two different things going on in the above statement that are being blended into a mass of dramatic confusion. I want to take a moment to clarify so that everyone can be educated food purchasers.
Eliminating antibiotics from meat has already been accomplished. THERE ARE NO ANTIBIOTICS IN THE MEAT THAT YOU EAT! It is illegal in the United States to market food animals that carry antibiotic residues. This is a non-negotiable fact of food production. The meat that you purchase from Subway today is free of antibiotics. That is the law…
Dr. Brad Jones, a veterinarian with the University of Nebraska and Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center talks about the decision-making process regarding antibiotic use in cattle and pigs, including the diagnosis of illnesses, treatment and antibiotic use considerations, and how animals are tracked from antibiotic administration to harvest.
This video by North American Meat Institute (NAMI) is part of the “Glass Walls” series which are designed to offer a behind the scenes tours of meat harvest facilities, how meat products are made, and more. You can watch more of the Glass Walls videos here.
Recently, Karl, the cow/calf herd manager at the research station where I am based, asked if I wanted to go look at the calves. I jumped on the opportunity, as it had been a few months since I had seen them, I also grabbed an office support staff member who missed the baby calf viewing.
Karl has this herd split into two groups, as they are easier to manage. Karl also explained that these cows have two roles, they are part research herd and part teaching herd.
As part of the physiology research herd, these cows may have blood drawn to look at progesterone levels, they may have different breeding synchronization methods, or they may be fed different feed rations to see how the fetus responds, and later how that calf performs in life.
Fun fact: cows that experience stress (i.e. diet limitations) while pregnant, have calves that generally do not perform as well as calves born to cows with minimal stress. By using cows as a model, we now know the same holds true for humans! To read more about cattle fetal programming, visit here, here, and here. Did you know cattle also have a 9 month gestation period just like humans?
As part of the teaching herd, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) graduate students learn how to collect blood, help with various cattle tasks as needed, and may assist with surgeries if and when necessary. It is a very hands-on, real world approach.
ALL animals involved in research and the people who work directly with them, must be current on their IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) training, and all facilities are inspected twice a year to ensure they are safe for both animal and human. Read more about IACUC here.
As you can see, these research cows are very healthy, have plentiful amounts of grass in their pastures, and appear to be happy. Karl and the UNL students ensure they are well taken care of daily! The research cows look just like any other cow that you may see in pastures! The cows also play a role in making advancements in human health and medicine, how cool is that!?
Last week media headlines indicated there is poop or fecal material in hamburger meant for human consumption. Yikes, that is a scary thought… Thankfully, it is untrue. This post will explain why these headlines are full of half-truths, and steps you can take to ensure you are practicing safe hamburger cooking.
About 50% of the red meat we eat is in the form of hamburger (aka ground beef), it is versatile, convenient, and usually the price is right. It is always important to use good sanitation when preparing food and to cook meat to the proper internal temperature (Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart).
Before meat or hamburger is demonized, it should be noted that ALL foods (plant and animal based) have the potential to make you sick. Did you know the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is responsible for tracking food recalls, withdrawals, and safety alerts? And they make that list available to us? You can read the 2015 list here. The thing I want to most point out: all foods, regardless of how they were grown/raised (organic, conventional, small farm, large farm, etc.) are on the list. These recalls do not necessarily happen because of a possible foodborne pathogen problems, it is often because a product is mislabeled, does not indicate it contains a possible allergenic ingredient, or has a distribution problem.
The original report by Consumer Reports can be read here. As is the case with sensational headlines, bits and pieces of the article were cherry picked and the good information did not make headlines…
Consumer Reports said: “All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli), which can cause blood or urinary tract infections. Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick. That toxin can’t be destroyed—even with proper cooking.”
Eric Mittenthal, with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) says “many in the media have focused on one claim from the study that has led to several very misleading and inaccurate stories—the idea that there is poop or fecal matter in your meat. Certainly this makes for eye grabbing headlines, but Consumer Reports did not find fecal matter in meat. In fact, nowhere in its report does it mention the words “fecal matter” or “poop.” What it found were bacteria, namely generic E.coli and Enterococcus, that are sometimes classified as signal organisms for fecal contamination, but different than fecal matter. The majority of this was Enterococcus which microbiologists now say are not good indicators of fecal contamination. What Consumer Reports found were bacteria that are commonly found in the environment, so it is no surprise to find them in beef, blueberries, anywhere else in a grocery store, or on your computer keyboard or phone. That doesn’t mean there’s poop on your phone, just that bacteria that once originated in a gastrointestinal tract is there. Simply put, they are different. For media to claim otherwise is simply inaccurate and misleading.”
It is important to note that the bacteria found are not commonly associated with foodborne illnesses from eating undercooked meat. It takes time for the toxins to form. These bacteria are more commonly associated with cooked food left out too long at the wrong temperature says Daren Williams, Executive Director of Communications, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Additionally, Dr. Gary Acuff, Texas A&M microbiologist and director of the University’s Center for Food Safety, confirmed that the presence of bacteria do not indicate fecal contamination. “A “fecal indicator” bacteria does not mean feces is present. It means that bacteria originally associated with a gastrointestinal tract are present, and that might indicate the possible presence of a pathogen like Salmonella or Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC). We use generic E. coli to give us a heads-up that something might be wrong with sanitation or our process, not to indicate the actual presence of feces. Read the entire NAMI response here.
Mandy Carr-Johnson, Ph.D., senior executive director, Science and Product Solutions, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), says “The good news is the bacteria found in the Consumer Reports tests are not the type of bacteria commonly associated with foodborne illness in ground beef.” Carr continues to say, “As an industry, our number one priority is producing the safest beef possible. Ground beef is the safest it has ever been with greater than 90 percent reductions in bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 and significant reductions in salmonella in recent years. The beef community continues to invest millions of dollars in developing new safety technologies with the goal of eliminating foodborne illness.”
The Consumer Report says “Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 due to tainted beef, sickening 1,144 people, putting 316 in the hospital, and killing five. Ground beef was the source of the majority of those outbreaks. And incidences of food poisoning are vastly under-reported. For every case of E. coli O157 that we hear about, we estimate that another 26 cases actually occur.”
So let’s pencil this out… That is 10 years of time (counting 2003 and 2012), 8 cases of E. coli O157 tainted beef per year, sickening 114 people per year, putting 32 in the hospital annually, and killing 1/2 person a year. While I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of the effects of food-borne pathogens E. coli O157 in this case), these numbers on an annual basis may seem more reasonable. Or think about the fact you have a bigger risk of being in a car accident, get hit crossing the street, or struck by lightning than you do from eating E. coli O157 tainted beef! This statement mentions that not all cases may be reported, this may be due in part to people not knowing what made them sick, people’s acidic stomachs killing possible pathogens, or not enough people getting sick from a common source to make it a case. Persons who are very young or old, pregnant, or who have immunocompromised systems would be most at risk with foodborne pathogens. Fun fact: packing plants regularly swab carcasses for pathogens, to ensure optimal food safety.
The Consumer Report says: “It’s not surprising to find bacteria on favorite foods such as chicken, turkey, and pork. But we usually choose to consume those meats well-cooked, which makes them safer to eat. Americans, however, often prefer their beef on the rare side. Undercooking steaks may increase your risk of food poisoning, but ground beef is more problematic. Bacteria can get on the meat during slaughter or processing. In whole cuts such as steak or roasts, the bacteria tend to stay on the surface, so when you cook them, the outside is likely to get hot enough to kill any bugs. But when beef is ground up, the bacteria get mixed throughout, contaminating all of the meat—including what’s in the middle of your hamburger. Also contributing to ground beef’s bacteria level: The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef. Ground beef (like other ground meats) can also go through several grinding steps at processing plants and in stores, providing more opportunities for cross-contamination to occur.”
This statement is partially true, on a whole cut of meat (i.e. steak, chop, roast) potential pathogens would only be on the surface of the meat and should be killed during the cooking process. However, when a ground meat product is made, the meat may be handled several times, come from several animals, and in general just have more places in the trimming/grinding process where contamination can occur. This is no different than a glass of orange juice containing juice from several oranges, a glass of milk containing milk from several cows, or a bag of rice containing rice from several fields.
Consumer Reports says: ” And then there’s the way home cooks handle raw ground beef: kneading it with bare hands to form burger patties or a meatloaf. Unless you’re scrupulous about washing your hands thoroughly afterward, bacteria can remain and contaminate everything you touch—from the surfaces in your kitchen to other foods you are preparing.”
This is a true statement. I often hear people blame the animal farmer, the meat packer, the retailer, or the restaurant if they get ill, however, the consumer (you and me) can be the ones to blame. It is very important to practice good sanitation and food safety at home. Here is a good read on common food safety myths.
This was Consumer Reports methodology: “… Consumer Reports decided to test for the prevalence and types of bacteria in ground beef. We purchased 300 packages—a total of 458 pounds (the equivalent of 1,832 quarter-pounders)—from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. We bought all types of ground beef: conventional—the most common type of beef sold, in which cattle are typically fattened up with grain and soy in feedlots and fed antibiotics and other drugs to promote growth and prevent disease—as well as beef that was raised in more sustainable ways, which have important implications for food safety and animal welfare. At a minimum, sustainably produced beef was raised without antibiotics. Even better are organic and grass-fed methods. Organic cattle are not given antibiotics or other drugs, and they are fed organic feed. Grass-fed cattle usually don’t get antibiotics, and they spend their lives on pasture, not feedlots.”
Bias alert… While I am glad they bought beef raised in various ways, implying that organic and grass-fed cattle are safer or more sustainable is a biased statement. It is unfair to report that one beef raising system is more sustainable than another. “All beef production models can be sustainable,” says Dr. Kim Stackhouse, executive director of sustainability for NCBA. “Beef sustainability is defined as producing more product with fewer inputs, which is the goal of every beef producer in this country. To cattle farmers and ranchers, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity, and social diligence while meeting the growing global demand for beef.”
Also, the statement grass-fed cattle usually don’t get antibiotics is just an assumption. There is not a governing body to monitor the grass-fed meat market like there is for the organic market. It cannot be simply assumed that just because the meat came from a grass-fed system that it has not received antibiotics. This is a major flaw in the Consumer Reports methodology. I did a series on meat labels and what they mean, to read more about grass-fed, grain-fed, organic, natural, etc. go here.
Consumer Reports also indicated “One of the most significant findings of our research is 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. We found a type of antibiotic-resistant S. aureus bacteria called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. every year, on three conventional samples (and none on sustainable samples). And 18 percent of conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs—the dangerous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—compared with just 9 percent of beef from samples that were sustainably produced. “We know that sustainable methods are better for the environment and more humane to animals. But our tests also show that these methods can produce ground beef that poses fewer public health risks.”
“Our concern is that leading consumers to believe organic and grass-fed beef are safer could make them think they do not need to cook those products to 160 ºF, creating a food safety concern,” says Dr. Mindy Brashears, professor, food microbiology and food safety, Texas Tech University. “It is important to note that bacteria was also found in the organic and grass-fed samples. The bottom-line is that no matter what the label says ground beef should be cooked to 160 ºF as a final step to ensure safety. Both S. aureus and C. perfringens found in the Consumer Reports study are toxin-producing bacteria that are typically associated with picnic-type food poisoning cases where food has been left out for long periods of time at the incorrect temperature, not undercooked ground beef,” says Brashears.
The good news, says Dr. Mandy Carr-Johnson is the Consumer Reports study did not find pathogenic bacteria like shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs) in any of the samples, including conventional beef. Controlling pathogenic bacteria is the key in terms of ensuring safety. Unfortunately, the Consumer Reports study confuses that issue with the finding of generic E. coli and other bacteria that are not commonly associated with illnesses from consuming undercooked ground beef. Read the entire article from Facts About Beef here.
When in doubt, cook ground meat products to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and thoroughly wash your hands, cooking tools, and surfaces. If you are dining out, ask for your burger to be cooked to a degree of doneness of medium-well. If you are served an undercooked burger, do not be afraid to send it back to be cooked more. Eating beef should not be a scary experience, it should be an enjoyable and flavorful experience!
The headlines about poop in your ground beef was meant to draw attention and sensationalize this story, however, it is full of half-truths and incorrect information. When stories like these hit the newsstands and media waves, it is important to read and understand them, to question what they are saying, and to engage the people who work in these industries and who know the facts that can be backed up with science and research.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana. Fair Oaks Farm specializes in transparency and is an agrotourism venue highlighting dairy cows and swine. As a guest to Fair Oaks Farms you can choose to do just one adventure or both – this was the option I chose.
Below is a photo diary of my dairy adventure. ** Please note: I am not paid to endorse or promote Fair Oaks Farms, this is just my opinion and experience.
As soon as I got to Fair Oaks I purchased my tickets for both the dairy and swine adventures. I had a little time to kill before my bus was to depart to go to the dairy facility, which for biosecurity reasons is separate from the main Fair Oaks facility. I spent some time looking around some of the educational displays while I waited…
It was time to load the bus and head to the dairy facility…
When I bought my dairy adventure ticket they told me to keep an eye on the stoplight outside of the dairy barn. If the light was red nothing was happening, if it was yellow feet were out, if it was green there was a delivery in process…
It was time to grab some lunch after the dairy adventure. So I headed to the COWfe!
My dairy adventure at Fair Oaks Farms was great. Even though I was traveling alone on this day there was so much to do and see it kept me fully entertained. I would definitely recommend this stop to anyone – whether you have an ag background (like me) or if you have never been to a dairy before. Stay tuned, I will soon blog about my swine adventure.