Our beef with shoddy, sensationalist, suspect science (commentary)Our beef with shoddy, sensationalist, suspect science (commentary)
August 28, 2015
*Liz Caselli-Mechael is director of issues management for the International Food Information Council Foundation. A full version of this article was posted at www.foodinsight.org/consumer-reports-ground-meat-organic-safe.
YOU'VE probably already seen the latest headline grab from Consumer Reports claiming that your ground beef is, inevitably, going to kill you.
If you remember nothing else from this media frenzy, remember this: (1) our meat supply is safe and tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (2) safe food handling procedures, like washing your hands and cooking your meat, are what you need to keep your family safe and (3) safe food handling procedures are needed for both organic and conventionally produced meat; microbes don't care how your food was produced.
After digging in to the report, here are a number of things Consumer Reports got wrong (and one they got right).
What they got wrong
* Myth: There are safety differences between grass-fed or organic meat and conventional meat.
Fact: Uncooked meat isn't safe to eat, regardless of how it was raised, and there is no difference in safety between burgers from organic and conventionally raised animals.
First, no beef, whether organic or conventional, is safe to eat unless it is has been cooked to the proper internal temperature. Consumer Reports doesn't dispute this.
The report also shows that ALL samples tested (organic, grass-fed and conventional) contained "bacteria that signified fecal contamination." So, the data show what scientists already knew to be true: All uncooked beef (no matter the production method) can contain bacteria, and some of that bacteria could be harmful.
Even when everything is properly cooked, there is no difference in safety between organic and conventionally raised meat.
Dr. Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains: "There is no definitive scientific evidence to indicate that organic beef is safer than conventionally raised beef. However, there have been many insinuations, based on indirect evidence or superficial studies, that organic beef is safest.
"The presence and number of bacteria found in ground beef is largely reflective of the conditions under which beef is processed, not on the conditions by which cattle are grown. In the 1980s, it was not uncommon to have bacterial counts in ground beef of more than a million cells per gram, whereas today's ground beef typically has less than 1,000 to 10,000 bacteria per gram. This is largely because beef processing conditions have markedly improved over the years, in part by including many innovative food safety interventions at processing facilities," Doyle added.
"Most bacteria present in raw ground beef are not harmful to human health," he said, but emphasized that Escherichia coli O157:H7 and salmonella "are harmful and can occasionally be found in raw ground beef, whether conventionally grown or organically grown. This is why it is important to cook ground beef to at least 160 degrees F before it's eaten."
So, be sure to cook all ground beef to 160 degrees F — every time.
* Myth: "Superbugs" in conventionally raised meat are making food unsafe.
Fact: The Food & Drug Administration and farmers are addressing antibiotic resistance through stewardship, and proper food handling keeps your family safe when eating meat from either organic or conventionally raised animals.
The report makes sweeping statements about the presence of so-called "superbugs" in conventionally raised meat without providing any citation. Consumer Reports also does not define superbug — a word that has too often been used to incite unnecessary fear among readers. In fact, FDA has spoken out against similar reports that used this term.
"We believe that it is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as 'superbugs' if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease," FDA reported.
So, regardless how Consumer Reports defines superbugs, should you worry about them in your meat? The short answer is no. Following the four steps of safe food handling — clean, separate, cook and chill — will keep you and your family safe from any potential pathogens in food.
Farmers practicing antibiotic stewardship also protect us from potential antibiotic-resistant organisms. By working with veterinarians and other trained professionals, many producers are decreasing antibiotic use to the lowest levels necessary while still humanely treating illness among their animals.
Also, FDA has provided guidance on phasing out "medically important" antibiotics from food-producing animals, including cattle, meaning that many producers are voluntarily stopping the use of animal antibiotics that are also used to treat common human illnesses. This means less opportunity for antibiotic-resistant strains to develop.
* Myth: Antibiotics are just a way to cheaply "fatten up" cattle.
Fact: Antibiotics are critical tools for animal health, and all farmers have an ethical responsibility to use them when needed.
Consumer Reports claims that antibiotics are used as "the most cost-efficient way to fatten up cattle." Not only is this a warped view of animal health and medicine, but it's an insult to the veterinarians around the country and the world who work every day to prioritize food safety and animal welfare. Animals used in food production should be able to live as free from pain, suffering and sickness as possible.
Experts such as Dr. H. Morgan Scott of Texas A&M University and others agree that the use of antibiotics to treat sick animals is the moral and ethical thing to do. Healthy animals mean a safe, affordable and abundant food supply.
As highlighted by the International Food Information Council Foundation's FACTS (Food Advocates Communicating Through Science) earlier this year, many opponents of antibiotics try to paint a picture that farmers of traditionally raised animals somehow are unethical or uncaring about how their animals are raised. In reality, even organic farmers are allowed to use antibiotics.
Will Gilmer, a dairy farmer in Alabama, explained, "When antibiotics are deemed medically necessary to treat a sick animal, farmers and ranchers, both conventional and organic, have an ethical responsibility to treat them. To balance their responsibility to the animal's health and the requirements of organic labeling, most organic producers either market treated animals as conventionally raised or sell them to a producer who is not in the organic or similar program."
* Myth: Buying up raw meat and testing it in a non-transparent environment is "science."
Fact: Science is not sensationalist. It's the use of accepted methodologies like systematic review and randomized-controlled trials. It's taking clear and valid study approaches. It's using transparency in data, analysis and conclusions. It's also peer reviewed so readers can see if the methodologies hold water.
Consumer Reports doesn't include citations or references for any of its assumptions or categorizations. It doesn't use peer-reviewed methodology, and it provides no sharing of raw data that would allow for an independent review of the findings. It doesn't show its criteria for bacterial contamination or for categorizing different types of meat production.
Consumer Reports shows its real intent in the way it blurs the line among science, economics, ethics and activist groups. This is all about polarization and pitting farmers against each other, not about making the food system safer. While it won't grab the attention of sensationalist social media, the way you can improve food safety is by practicing and teaching safe food handling.
What they got right
* Fact: There are risks from undercooking or handling raw meat. Use a food thermometer, and wash your hands!
Microbes don't care how your food was produced. Both organic and conventionally produced foods can be contaminated with dangerous pathogens. E. coli, salmonella and listeria don't discriminate. In fact, some research has even shown higher rates of microbial contamination on organic foods than conventionally produced foods, which is all the more reason to brush up on your safe food handling skills, no matter what type of foods you buy.
There are four simple steps to help keep your family's food safe: clean, separate, cook and chill. Check out the "Consumer's Guide to Safe Food Handling" infographic (www.foodinsight.org/blogs/consumers-guide-safe-food-handling), and remember, these tips apply to ALL foods, no matter the production method.
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