The American love affair with ground beef endures. We put it between buns. Tuck it inside burritos. Stir it into chili. Even as U.S. red meat consumption has dropped overall in recent years, we still bought 4.6 billion pounds of beef in grocery and big-box stores over the past year. And more of the beef we buy today is in the ground form—about 50 percent vs. 42 percent a decade ago. We like its convenience, and often its price.
The appetite persists despite solid evidence—including new test results here at Consumer Reports—that ground beef can make you seriously sick, particularly when it’s cooked at rare or medium-rare temperatures under 160° F. “Up to 28 percent of Americans eat ground beef that’s raw or undercooked,” says Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
All meat potentially contains bacteria that—if not destroyed by proper cooking—can cause food poisoning, but some meats are more risky than others. Beef, and especially ground beef, has a combination of qualities that can make it particularly problematic—and the consequences of eating tainted beef can be severe.
Indeed, food poisoning outbreaks and recalls of bacteria-tainted ground beef are all too frequent. Just before the July 4 holiday this year, 13.5 tons of ground beef and steak destined for restaurants and other food-service operations were recalled on a single day because of possible contamination with a dangerous bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7. That particular bacterial strain can release a toxin that damages the lining of the intestine, often leading to abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, life-threatening kidney damage. Though the contaminated meat was discovered by the meat-packing company’s inspectors before any cases of food poisoning were reported, we haven’t always been so lucky.
Between 2003 and 2012, there were almost 80 outbreaks of E. coli O157 due to tainted beef, sickening 1,144 people, putting 316 in the hospital, and killing five. Ground beef was the source of the majority of those outbreaks. And incidences of food poisoning are vastly underreported. “For every case of E. coli O157 that we hear about, we estimate that another 26 cases actually occur,” Gould says. She also reports that beef is the fourth most common cause of salmonella outbreaks—one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S.—and for each reported illness caused by that bacteria, an estimated 29 other people are infected.