Column #357    July 8, 2022Consumer Reports Magazine August 2022

The headline on the cover of the August 2022 Consumer Reports (CR) magazine was “Is Our Meat Safe to Eat?” Instead of just coming out with a plain “yes,” the article’s introductory paragraphs implied that meat eaters are risking their lives! For an example of CR’s take, it stated the following: “But our love of ground meat comes at a price: It’s a leading cause of food poisoning.”1

Wow! That doesn’t sound very safe, especially when “it’s a leading cause.”

The CR article continued by stating that “Since 2018, 11 outbreaks of illness have been traced back to raw meat, sickening a reported 1,264 people—and at least eight of them involved ground meat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” What’s that again? There were 11 outbreaks of illness in about four years sickening a reported 1,264 people. That’s about 316 people per year that got sick? That doesn’t sound like very many people out of the 330 million of them who are eating three meals a day.

Then CR boasted that it “also found a strain of E. coli in a sample of ground beef that is so dangerous that we immediately alerted the Department of Agriculture to our findings, triggering a recall of more than 28,000 pounds of the meat from major grocery chains in seven Western states.” CR failed to put that in perspective by mentioning that Americans consume about 27.6 billion pounds of beef annually.

Then CR concluded that “Together, the findings highlight serious flaws in the way meat is produced in this country, and huge gaps in how the government ensures meat safety.” Basically that answered the question posed by the headline and it certainly didn’t provide any encouragement.

Now if E. coli in beef sounds like a bad deal, the article really went after chicken where CR said it found salmonella in 23 of the 75 samples it tested. Then in a subheading titled “Fixing a Broken System” it made more scary statements. For example, “Last year CR, along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other food safety groups, petitioned the USDA, urging it to reduce the salmonella strains that pose the biggest threat to human health. The groups also say the USDA needs more authority to inspect facilities that breed and raise poultry and, when a plant is found to have high salmonella rates, to quickly shutter its operations.”

The only mention made regarding fruit and veggies was a reference to a statement by Tom Super, senior vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council. He said “Any raw agricultural product, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and poultry, is susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria. No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing.”

By that point I was nearly ready to become a vegetarian.

But then I went to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website and downloaded “Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008.” The data is a little old, but conditions have only gotten better therefore I think the report is very worthwhile. So I sorted through the ten years of data regarding foodborne illnesses and its sources to get a bigger picture.2

The introduction to the report had this to say: “Using data from outbreak-associated illnesses for 1998–2008, we estimated annual US foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths attributable to each of 17 food commodities. We attributed 46% of illnesses to produce and found that more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity. To the extent that these estimates reflect the commodities causing all foodborne illness, they indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry.” That was interesting in that this study implied that produce and poultry are more of a serious health issue than beef.

The study’s annual estimates for domestically acquired foodborne illnesses attributed to specific food commodities and commodity groups for 1998–2008 were as follows.
Aquatic animals     589,310 (6.1%)
Land animals       4,021,839 (41.7%)
Plants                    4,924,877 (51.1%)
Undetermined        102,275 (1.1%)
Total                      9,638,301 (100.0%)

The annual averages and percentages of selected tabulated incidences in the land animals’ section were Beef 639,640 (6.6%), Pork 524,684 (5.4%) and Poultry 943,185 (9.8%). So, the primary meats that Americans eat only racked up 21.8% of the cases of annual foodborne illnesses.

The study did indicate that annually 1,451 people per year died of foodborne diseases. The breakdown for the primary land animals was Beef 55 (3.8%), Pork 82 (5.7%), and Poultry 278 (19.1%). All plants were 363 (25%). For perspective, keep in mind that in 2020 there was 38,824 lives lost to traffic accidents nationwide. So, is traveling in a car 26.8 times more dangerous than eating food?

When it comes to avoiding foodborne illnesses, prevention is important. Cooking kills pathogens. Since pathogens are on the surface of meats, cooking pork/beef steaks and roasts to a surface temperature of 160° F—even though the internal temperature may be only 120° F—that is sufficient protection. The suggested safe external temperature for poultry breasts and whole meats is 165° F even though the internal temperature may be less.

When meats are ground up and the outside has been mixed with the inside, that’s when ground beef and pork must be cooked to an INTERNAL temperature of 160° F with ground poultry being cooked to 165° F.

Since fruits and vegetables are not always cooked, that’s when they can be carriers for foodborne diseases. Just like pathogens get on the surface of meat, they also get on the surfaces of plants. Consequently, in the same way that CR can demonize meats because of pathogen contamination, it can also demonize all other foods.

The bottom line is that by taking proper precautions with food selections, transporting, storage, preparations, cooking, and serving we can minimize the risks for contracting foodborne diseases. When it comes to food safety, the nation’s meat processors are going to great pains to keep our food safe. In fact, most are far better at it than consumers.

So there you have it. Meat is safe to eat. Period end of story.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

Don't miss these links for additional reading:

1. Is Our Ground Meat Safe to Eat? by Lisa L. Gill from Consumer Reports Magazine

2. Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008 by John A. Painter, et al.