Ryan at Agriculture Proud has a post I wanted to share…
A literature review released by Standford University indicates that organic foods do not offer significant safety or health benefits over conventionally produced food. It is important to understand all of the facts so you can make the best decisions for your family when it comes to purchasing food.
Earlier this week, a journal on Internal Medicine released a review from Stanford University which concluded that there are no significant health or safety benefits of choosing organic over conventionally grown foods.
This is different from previous papers in that it is a review of recent, relevant studies, instead of a research study in itself. The group from Stanford looked at 237 studies analyzing the benefits and dangers of eating organic vs conventionally grown food products. What they found upset many proponents of organics who use health reasons for their choices.
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.
BuzzFeed has come up with a great list of 10 Things Farmers are Tired of Hearing – and it is pretty spot on.
If you are reading this and would like more information about any of the points discussed in the article, please let me know, I would be glad to send resources to you or to visit with you more about agriculture.
If you are reading this article and would like to visit a farm or ranch in person, instead of looking at what is portrayed on your computer screen (not always true or accurate), please let me know – I would be more than happy to find someone across the country that can accommodate your needs.
Is organic food safer, healthier, or more nutritious than conventionally produced food? Research indicates there are no significant differences. Rhonda at Iowa Meets Maui does a very nice job of discussing this issue.
I have completed my first full year of blogging! While I was not the most diligent blogger, I learned a lot, met some great people, and had some great conversations. My social media goals and expectations were exceeded! Many thanks to you, my readers for your interest. I have new ideas for blog posts and delivery methods in 2015, so stay tuned!
Yesterday I shared with you the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed. My former colleague, Carrie Schneider-Miller, MS, RD, in the Nebraska Extension Food, Nutrition, and Health focus area also recently discussed Is Grass-fed beef better?
Today, in part two of the great Meat Labeling Terms series, we will discuss the differences between organic, all-natural, and naturally raised.
Sales of organic products continue to grow, especially organic food products. Organic products now make up just over 4% of total U.S. food sales (USDA:ERS, 2016).
Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic. This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years. Additionally, the livestock CANNOT receive antibiotics or additional growth hormones (USDA, 2013)(many hormones are naturally occurring in the animal, but no additional hormones are given by producers in this program).
What organic does not certify or guarantee — The important thing to keep in mind here is that organic only refers to what the animal has consumed. The NOP does not regulate or govern what happens to the meat during processing. Meaning that the meat may have additional colorants or products (spices, sauces, marinades, etc.) added to the final product, unlike all-natural meats.
Research has indicated that organic foods are NOT considered to be healthier or better for you than conventionally raised foods. However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products. Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form. Research has also indicated that because there is no preservative use, organically grown products may be more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and pathogen contamination (Natural and Organic Foods, n.d.).
It is also important to note that just because it is organic, does not mean it is pesticide or chemical free. Organic producers use natural chemicals versus synthetic chemicals. For more information read this.
How can you tell if the meat you are purchasing is organic? Look at the label. If a product is organic it will have the USDA organic seal. This indicates the product is certified organic and has 95% or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic (National Organic Program, 2012). If someone is claiming that a product is organic, but they are not certified, be cautious – the NOP says that a product cannot be marketed as organic unless it is certified. The only exemption is if a producer sells $5,000 or less in goods annually, then they are not required to become certified (Labeling Organic Products, 2012).
It is estimated that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle are produced under an all-natural regime (Natural Beef Profile, 2012); this would be a large portion of meat in the meat case. Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the “natural” label CANNOT be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013; Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2015). It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to define “natural”, as the above criterion that applied may now be outdated. It was being explored to consider how agricultural technologies (i.e. pesticides, thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation) play into this discussion. Meat labeled as all-natural can come from an animal that has consumed any grain or forage product, organic or not. All-natural does NOT include any standards regarding farm practices; which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.
Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. Again, it is a common myth the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics. This is false, each individual producer can decide if their animals can/need to receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics (USDA Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2011). If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones or antibiotics then make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer (look at the label) that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.
However, prior to this change, all-natural and naturally raised should not have been used interchangeably – they are NOT the same thing. The naturally raised marketing claim indicated that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products had been raised entirely WITHOUT additional growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), or animal by-products (no longer a common practice).
Since naturally raised does carry the “natural” label, the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients – making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013).
When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a producer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, a Farmer’s Market, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and family preference.