Smart Shopper: How to Buy and Cook Ground Beef (and Live to Tell the Tale)

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If you're a meat eater, the past couple of weeks have been tough. Between reports of rampant bacterial contamination in meat and stories of people being arrested for filming meat processing centers, it's becoming clear that it is all but impossible to escape from -- or, really, even identify -- the dangers lurking in your favorite cut of meat. So, outside of going vegetarian, what can you and your family do?

Luckily, there are a few steps you can take that will greatly reduce the chances that your favorite cut of meat will send you to the hospital. Some are expensive -- but some, thankfully, could actually save you money. And all of them are a lot cheaper than the medical bills you're likely to face if you get a bacterial infection from your burger!

The Problem With Meat

When it comes to tainted meat, ground beef is a perfect storm, combining several of the worst problems facing the meat processing industry. To begin with, the grinding process often mixes meat from several different cows, increasing the chance that a customer will eat meat from a sick animal. Then, to make things worse, high-speed slaughtering and meat processing often leaves cows with "digestive bacteria" from their intestines smeared on the outside of the meat. When the outside gets mixed with the inside, as when meat is ground up, bacteria gets spread through the mix.

In 2012, a government study found that 55 percent of ground beef contained at least one kind of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Processors kill some of these pathogens with radiation or chemicals like chlorine and ammonia, but some bacteria slips through the net. And that's where the problems start.

Beyond the Bun

Most food-borne bacteria can be killed with heat, which is why the USDA advises cooking hamburgers to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F -- basically, well-done. But what about steak? After all, the bacteria in ground chuck develops because the outside of the meat gets mixed in when the beef is ground up. Since steak isn't ground up, it should be safe, right?

Not so fast. Many beef cuts are "mechanically tenderized," which means that meat producers use needles or small blades to chew up the meat before they sell it. While the cuts are invisible to the naked eye, the process of pushing needles into the meat injects the inside of the steak with whatever bacteria was on the outside.

An investigative report by The Kansas City Star found that, according to some estimates, mechanically tenderized beef may have been responsible for up to 3,100 food poisoning cases in recent years. Unfortunately, food producers aren't required to reveal if they have mechanically tenderized a cut of meat, and most don't do so. One exception is Costco: after an e Coli outbreak in 2012, the retailer began labeling all of its mechanically tenderized meats with the term "blade tenderized."

A Healthier Option?

On the surface, ground turkey seems like a great substitute for beef. It packs the same protein punch, but most turkey blends contain between 1 percent and 5 percent fat, far less than ground chuck. But, as a recent Consumer Reports laboratory analysis revealed, when it comes to bacteria -- particularly fecal-related bacteria -- ground turkey is, if anything, even worse than beef.

Consumer Reports found that 90 percent of the ground turkey samples they tested contained at least one kind of bacteria, and 69 percent contained fecal-related bacteria. In other words, just as with ground beef, if you want to eat a turkey burger without worrying about getting sick, you'll need to order it well done.

Some Guidelines for Buying

Bacteria are only half the meat problem: a bigger one is antibiotics. Factory farms, which produce the majority of American meat, are designed to get the maximum return with the minimum investment. In the case of meat processing, that means growing animals as quickly as possible, in the smallest possible space, and with the smallest possible labor cost. Antibiotics are the key to this process.

As numerous exposes have noted, factory farms save on money by cramming pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows into tiny pens, then using a mix of hormones and antibiotics to spur quick growth and prevent the diseases that naturally result from overcrowding and harsh treatment. In fact, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. go to agriculture, where they are routinely administered to healthy farm animals.

This overuse of antibiotics comes with a huge cost: the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs." And this is where the really scary news comes in: almost all of the bacteria that Consumer Reports found in ground turkey were antibiotic resistant. To put this in context, it means that, if you get sick from eating a burger, there's a very good chance that your doctor will need to use three or more different antibiotics to get you well. And, while you're waiting for your doc to find an antibiotic that will work, the pathogens will be wreaking havoc on your body.

The one spot of bright news was that turkeys labeled "organic," "grown without antibiotics," or "no antibiotics" were much less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In other words, the extra money that you pay for organic turkey doesn't make a difference when it comes to the presence of bacteria, but may make a big difference when it comes to the treatment of a bacterial infection.

What Can You Do?

Ultimately, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself if you decide to eat meat:
  • First, you can buy organic meat, which costs a bit more, but has far fewer antibiotic-resistant pathogens. What's more, it doesn't have growth hormones, which could also wreak havoc on your health.
  • Second, you can try to buy from safe processors. Some local butchers might be able to tell you where your meat came from and how it was processed. But even if you don't have a trustworthy local butcher, you might consider going to Costco, which charges less for most meats and is careful to label all of its mechanically tenderized products.
  • Once you get it home, you should cook your meat fully, to an internal temperature of 160º F. In the case of burgers and steaks, this could be a bummer: After all, nobody likes to eat a hockey puck. But with some other cuts, like ribs, brisket, pot roast, and stew beef, slow cooking can break down the collagen in your meat, making it tender and delicious. As an added plus, these cuts tend to be among the cheapest ones in your butcher case!
  • Meat safety isn't merely something you should think about in the home: some of the country's most famous chain restaurants, including Red Robin, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse have been cited for food poisoning outbreaks. If you're eating at a chain restaurant, don't be afraid to ask where your steak came from. And, if they don't know, you might think about switching from sirloin to pot roast!
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Paul and Debbie

I spent 3 days in the hospital in Middletown, Ohio with food poisoning from Applebees on Towne Blvd in Middletown. My daughter much younger than me, with no heart problems was sick within 30 minutes. It took me almost a year to get any settlement from them. I never ate there again, and never will.

May 04 2013 at 8:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply