Poop Patty… Is there fecal material in your hamburger?

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.

Ground beef headlines
A variety of headlines via popular media last week…

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.

Featured Image -- 1575Consumer 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.

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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.

These headlines undoubtedly have provoked fear and concerns amoungst thousands of beef eating consumers. However, you can continue to consume and enjoy ground beef. Here are some great resources on ground beef safety and preparation:
10 Tips for Safely Preparing and Handling Raw Beef
Ground Beef and Food Safety

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!

Burger - final
Ground beef is so versatile and delicious…

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.

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Dr. Lindsay can also be found on:

– Website (http://food.unl.edu/ag-and-food)
– Twitter/Instagram (agwithdrlindsay)
– Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agwithdrlindsay)
– Pinterest (Lindsay Chichester-Medahunsi)

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Is the beef industry sustainable: A look at grass-fed, hormones, growth promotants, and more

Recently, several of my colleagues and I hosted a Sensitive Issues: Media and Communication Training, we worked on developing and improving our communication skills around agriculture and agricultural topics. One of the topics we received more information on was sustainability.

Dr. Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant, was our first speaker. I want to share with some of the messages about sustainability shared by Dr. Capper.

Capper– Sustainability is defined as “able to last or continue for a long time.” Many livestock farmers and ranchers are sustainable – whether they raise 10 head or 1,000 head. If you have never heard of the Century Farms Program, you should check it out. The American Farm Bureau Foundation recognizes farms or ranches by state that have been in a family for 100+ years! That is sustainable.

– There are essentially three things that need to be considered to be sustainable: 1) the economic viability, 2) the environmental response, and 3) the social acceptance. I think you would agree that no matter the type of agriculture system, these are all important to livestock farmers and ranchers.

– Every farmer and rancher can be sustainable! Sustainability is seen in all types of agriculture — conventional, organic, grass-fed, grain-fed, small, and large. Size of the agricultural enterprise is NOT a determinant of sustainability. Sustainability does not just apply to niche agricultural products.

– Animal agriculture’s U.S. carbon footprint is small! According tot he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meat production accounts for 2.1% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

– If everybody in the U.S. went meatless every Monday for an entire year… The National carbon footprint would only decrease by less than 1/3 of 1 percent!

– If animal agriculture did not exist, what would be the carbon cost of sourcing product ingredients that currently come from agricultural byproducts? Think about all of the products we use daily (i.e. cosmetics, gelatin based foods, paints, etc.), medications, and even food for our pets. Animal agriculture helps keep the carbon footprint low!

– Meat and dairy can be replaced with vegetable proteins, but humans produce methane too!

– In 1977, it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef as four animals in 2007. Raising beef has become more efficient. 

– In 1977 it took 609 days to get them to a harvest (slaughter) weight, in 2007 it took 485 days.  This equates to 3,045 animal days in 1977 and 1,940 animal days in 2007. Raising beef has become more sustainable, and is reducing resources.

– If we converted our current cattle feeding system entirely to a grass-fed system:

– We would need 64.6 million more cattle for a grass-fed system. These cattle average a 615 pound hot carcass weight (the weight after the animal has been harvested, hide, hooves, and intestines/variety meats removed), and it would take approximately 679 days to get them to a desirable harvest (slaughter) weight.

– In comparison, a conventional (or grain-fed beef animal) has an approximate 800 pound hot carcass weight and takes approximately 444 days to get to desirable harvest weight. 

*** All cattle farming/ranching systems are needed and valued, whether it is grain-fed, grass-fed, organic, or natural — one is not better than another, they are just different.

– If, the entire beef industry converted entirely to grass-fed beef we would need an additional 131 million acres of land, 468 billion gallons of water, and 131 million tones of carbon!

– Hormones in food are considered unacceptable, but lifestyle hormones are acceptable.

– One 8 ounce steak from a non-implanted beef animal contains 3.5 ng of estrogen, from an implanted beef animal (a beef animal given additional hormones) it is 5.1 ng of estrogen. One birth control pill delivers 35,000 ng of estrogen. In comparison, a woman would have to eat 3,000 pounds of beef daily to get the same amount of hormones through meat that is found in birth control!

– Growth enhancing technologies (i.e. growth hormones) reduce the environmental impact of beef by 10.7%! More specifically, 4.2 tonnes of feed, 1 acre of land, and 22,722 gallons of water per 800 pound carcass and reduced if growth enhancement technologies are used.

– The extra beef produced as a result of using beta-agonists and implants on a single carcass with supply seven children with school lunches for an entire year!

All foods and food systems can be sustainable. Sustainability is best achieved by optimizing efficiency across the entire food and agriculture chain. Technology has allowed beef farmers/ranchers to produce more beef using less resources.

What other questions do you have about sustainability? I have also written about it here.

cow-calf pairs

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Dr. Lindsay can also be found on:

– Website (http://food.unl.edu/ag-and-food)
– Twitter/Instagram (agwithdrlindsay)
– Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agwithdrlindsay)
– Pinterest (Lindsay Chichester-Medahunsi)

Sustainable – More than meets the eye

McDonald’s recently announced that they would commit to buying sustainable beef by 2016. Additionally, meat processor JBS recently introduced more sustainable hamburger with Wal-Mart in Brazil. When one hears these stories they question what do they mean by sustainable? Commonly when people talk sustainability they think “green”, if it’s green it is good for the environment – it must be sustainable. However the concept of sustainability encompasses more than just the environment and its natural resources. Fellow UNL Extension Educator, Jessica Jones, at Insights for Sustainability, and I invite you to explore what sustainable means to you.

Sustainable? I think it is safe to say we all think we know what sustainable means. Does your definition include green, healthy, organic, or all-natural? What about stable, viable, generational, profitable?  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sustainability is defined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (International Institute for Sustainable Development).

People need natural, financial, and human resources to meet their needs. Natural resources help to meet our basic needs like air, water, food, and shelter. Financial resources in our society provide us the ability to buy needed goods and services. While human resources provide us knowledge needed to meet our needs and the social interaction needed in our lives. These resource types form the three components necessary for sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.

To think about sustainability one must think about the world in which we live as a system that includes intertwined environmental, economic, and social parts that interact. The goal of being sustainable is having a healthy system which functions infinitely without detrimental changes to its health. Preserving the system’s health means protecting the quality and quantity of the natural resources, providing opportunities for people to prosper, and growing vibrant and resilient communities.

Below are three examples of farm and ranch families continuing to work towards sustainability. 

Kelli
Kelli Loos, 5th generation rancher

Kelli Loos: As a fifth generation rancher, sustainability is important for our family and has been for years. While the term and its definition are often controversial, they take on different meanings depending on the particular agenda of the person you are talking to.

I don’t think that regulations and government infringement on personal property rights are the way to achieve real sustainability. I believe that since the day ranchers built fences and had to feed their cattle on the grass inside their fence, they have been continually working to improve that natural resource. As a kid I remember the hours we spent with Dad in our pastures chopping musk thistle and cedar trees to keep our pastures clean and able to grow good grass because we had a neighbor that didn’t control his weeds. My Dad carefully managed the moving of the cattle so no area was never over-grazed. He wanted to make sure that grass would come back even better the next year. While I probably didn’t understand at the time why he was so meticulous about these practices, it all makes sense now. He wanted to make sure that the land was better when he passed it to his kids than it was when he got it from my Grandpa.

Pasture management is much the same but also very different than it was 100 years ago. As stewards of the land, we continue to learn and develop the tools we have to make the best use of our resources not only for the short-term but for years into the future. Thanks to careful management, many ranchers have been able to maintain their cow herds even through drought years because they have planned ahead and developed strategies to address these challenges of Mother Nature. It is not just our way of life, it is our living and our legacy. It means that much to us!

Ranchers aren’t the best stewards of their God-given natural resources because of any law or government program. They do it so that the land and legacy they pass on to their children is one that will continue for generations that far outlive them.

Loos
Kelli’s parents and her daughters.

Lacey
Lacey – both her Mom and Dad came from farming and cattle families.

Lacey Heddlesten: Sustainability is a fantastic “trendy” word that is being heavily used in the marketing industry in this day and age. However, when you ask a farmer or rancher what that word means, you might get various responses, but they all boil down to one common theme. It’s our way of life; it’s just what we do. Coming from a multi-generational farming operation in Western KS, Lindsay asked me to write a little bit for her blog about sustainability.  I feel as though I’m one of those “lucky kids”, I grew up with farming all around me as far as the eye could see. Both sides of my family (Mom and Dad) were involved in farming and cattle operations, both were multi-generational, going into the 4th generations. Both sides of my family have changed with the times when they deemed it necessary, but the core values of what the farm was founded on, and the type of work ethic, financial responsibility and moral obligation to uphold that Farmer’s code has never changed. 

Being raised the way I was, has 100% affected the person I am today.  I’ve seen my share of family farms disappearing around our area as well, so how did my family survive this trend of family farms drying up? How were they able to be “sustainable”?  These are my thoughts. Although, it seems farmers and cattleman get a bad rap in social media as being a bunch of rednecks wearing overalls and sideways caps and a piece of straw in their mouth, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well maybe the overall part (right Grandpa?).  Farmers in this day and age that are part of a multi-generational farming operation have mastered the art of sustainability. Farmers are individuals with incredible passion for what they do, and they are 100% aware that the agricultural industry has no choice but to be sustainable in order to make the world go round, in order for life to continue to survive and thrive. Farmers have to be incredible businessman to maintain their farms through the years of extreme hardship, because not every year do they end up “in the black”.  They have to be able to stretch a dollar to where it needs to be. They have to be able to make their own decisions and not rely on others to do that for them.  Farmers do look out for #1, but you can bet your life’s savings that if you were in need, they would be right there to help you out too. The network that a farmer builds within his or her lifetime is a big one, and a tight one.

These are just a few of the “big” points that have made my family’s farm “sustainable”.  Now, I will admit, I’m not currently out working on the farm alongside my mom and dad, but I can tell you I’m still in the agriculture industry, I’m still applying those lessons learned to my current job.  And I’m currently working like hell to get my family moved back out to the farm so my son and daughter can be raised in that “farming community” just as I was.

Wheat Harvest 2013 040 (2)
Wheat harvest in Western Kansas featuring four generations!

me
Getting my hands dirty with a little gardening.

 Lindsay Chichester: In my personal definition of sustainable, I would certainly include the word generational. The ranch I was born and raised on in Northern California has been in my family since the early 1900’s! My sister and I are the 4th generation, while neither of us live there now, I know we will continue the tradition. While many things have changed over the years, like fences, facilities, efficiency of waterways, and the kind and type of livestock raised, there are some things that have not changed. Those things are work ethic, family values, responsibility, and resource management. A 15 hour work day was not uncommon; dinner at the table as a family was expected; feeding and caring for your livestock before you ate was the norm; conserving water, responsibly applying pesticides when needed, and managing livestock grazing systems were essential traits to learn as stewards of the land.

While I worked harder than most kids growing up, could beat most of the boys at arm wrestling, and regularly had manure on my shoes I would not change a thing. It was and still is a wonderful lifestyle and I hope to raise my children with the same ethics and values, as well as love and responsibility to the land and the livestock instilled in me on the family ranch.

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Family photo on my wedding day. Nothing more scenic that an outdoor wedding at the family ranch.

I hope these examples have provided you with a wider viewpoint of sustainability – maybe sustainability from 10,000 feet? It is more than just a buzzword for local, green, or natural, but also includes family, values, generations, and stewards of the land. Next time you see a farmer or rancher, see what sustainability mean to them. I think it may surprise you!