Read This Before You Bite into Your Next Hamburger
Life + Money

Read This Before You Bite into Your Next Hamburger

Flickr/Steve Depolo

You might want to think twice before grilling up those burgers for your family dinner.

For its new cover story, Consumer Reports analyzed 300 packages of ground beef, or 458 pounds in total, purchased from 103 different stores in 26 cities. The results will either encourage you to pass on the red meat altogether or shell out the extra bucks for sustainable grass-fed beef.

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All of the beef tested — all 458 pounds — was contaminated with bacteria that signified fecal contamination. In other words, if you’re among the Americans who have purchased 4.6 billion pounds of ground beef over the past year, chances are your meat had poop in it.

The results have health implications that go well beyond any ick factor. Consumer Reports says the bacteria it found can cause blood or urinary tract infections. About 20 percent of the beef contained a type of bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually, and 10 percent had a strain of bacteria that produces a toxin that makes you sick — and that isn’t destroyed by the cooking process. While only 1 percent of the sample had salmonella, the massive quantity of ground beef that Americans consume each year makes that problematic, too. Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the U.S. every year.

Consumer Reports found that beef from conventionally raised cows is more likely to contain bacteria overall, including bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, compared with beef from cows that are sustainably raised. Conventional beef samples also were twice as likely to be contaminated by bacteria that is resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics than beef that was sustainably produced.

Related: Consumer Reaction to Unhealthy Food Is Changing an Industry

While all meat carries the risk of containing harmful bacteria, beef — and especially ground beef — has qualities that make it more of a health risk than other meats. When beef is ground up, the bacteria is mixed through the entire patty. If the patty isn’t cooked the entire way through — and Americans often like their beef less than well-done — the bacteria in the middle remain alive. The meat and fat trimmings from ground beef also come from multiple cattle, so a single contaminated cow can end up in multiple packages of beef. Even more opportunities for cross-contamination exist from grinding steps at processing plants and in stores, the magazine says.

Beef processing companies have developed ways to slaughter cattle quickly — as many as 400 head per hour. Even though the slaughterhouses employ various techniques to destroy bacteria, just one quality control mistake at one plant can lead to thousands of packages of contaminated beef.

Even though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts inspections of the slaughterhouses, inspectors don’t have all that much pull, Consumer Reports says. Four companies produce more than 80 percent of U.S. beef and those Big Four, as they’re called, have political sway that may help them fight enforcement of existing rules or the passage tighter safety restrictions.

So if you’re going to buy some burgers for your family, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports recommends picking meat labeled grass-fed and organic. The organization has a shopping guide for ground beef here.