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Consumer Reports tests ground beef for bacteria, yields surprising results

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

Eating undercooked ground beef may not be as safe as you thought, according to recent report

Consumer Reports recently released a report on ground beef that yielded some surprising results. But scientists working with the North American Meat Institute are already hitting back.

Consumer Reports tested samples of conventional and sustainably raised ground beef to see if any bacteria that could be a health risk to humans were present. The result? All 458 pounds of beef tested positive for bacteria that "signified fecal contamination" — enterococcus and E. coli. Furthermore, 20 percent had traces of C. perfringens, which causes approximately 1 million cases of food poisoning each year.

More: E. coli infections and toddler's death shut down South Carolina day care

Luckily these bacteria can be destroyed as long as your beef is cooked through to 160 degrees F.

More troubling was the 10 percent of beef that contained a toxic strain of S. aureus bacteria that can't be destroyed with cooking.

In whole cuts of meat, like steak, these bacteria usually reside on the surface of the meat, where it cooks off easily. With ground beef, however, the bacteria get mixed throughout, and since the meat can come from several cows, contamination spreads easily.

Consumer Reports did find that the nonorganic, conventionally raised beef was overall much more likely to contain bacteria, including twice as many antibiotic-resistant strains, than sustainably raised beef.

But Gary Acuff, director of Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety, was quick to point out to Business Insider that in most cases, cooking the beef to a proper temperature will render this difference in bacteria null and void.

He also pointed out that C. perfringens is usually present in beef as a result of mass production and warm temperatures, and is not from the cow itself. Then again, organic and sustainable beef operations are usually much smaller than industrial, conventional meat packing facilities, so the odds of conventional beef being contaminated by this particular bacterium still seem higher.

More: Is your food prep really safe?

Acuff also argues that enterococcus is not a signifier of fecal contamination and was probably present because of contamination during food preparation. But Consumer Reports was testing uncooked ground beef, and according to publication Quartz, "Several independent microbiologists have confirmed to Quartz that it is extremely unlikely that the bacteria found in the ground beef tested came from other sources besides feces."

It's also interesting to note that Acuff is listed as an expert consultant on the website of the North American Meat Institute, a meat trade association that lobbies in favor of the meat industry.

More: Top 5 salmonella carriers and how to stop the spread

Either way, a few important things can be learned here. First, always cook your beef to at least 160 degrees F. Sorry, lovers of the rare burger, but it just isn't as safe to eat undercooked beef. Second, if you are going to tempt fate and eat rare, you're better off eschewing conventionally raised ground beef for organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised. And third, no matter how compelling a story is, it's always important to double check the facts — and their sources.

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