My Beef with Ground Beef


I have a beef with ground beef.  You might think my issues with ground beef have to do with the humane treatment of animals used for food or environmental concerns about raising cattle for beef.  I do care about those things but this isn’t about the beef industry in general.  It’s about ground beef.

ground beef

Photo Credit: Danielle Scott via Flickr


I also have opinions about lean, finely textured beef, AKA “pink slime” (stay tuned for those), but this isn’t about pink slime either.  So what is it about?

Foodborne Illness

Every year, 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick by consuming contaminated food or beverages.  And that figure only takes into account the people who seek out medical care AND are tested for a foodborne illness.  Out of the 48 million people who get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne disease.*

And this too common public health problem is preventable.

According to the CDC’s 2011 Estimates for Foodborne Illness eight know pathogens account for the vast majority of illness, hospitalization, and death.  These pathogens are Campylobacter spp., Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (STEC) O157, Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Toxoplasma gondii.

E. coli

E. coli

E. coli Photo Credit: CDC

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are a large group of bacteria which include strains that are harmless and strains that can make you very sick.  Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC for short), which includes the commonly identified E. coli group O157:H7, are responsible for most of the E. coli caused illnesses in the United States.  In 2011, O157 was responsible for 36% of the STEC infections (265,000 cases) and an estimated 2,138 hospitalizations.

The major source of STEC caused human illness is cattle.  And because the STEC that makes humans sick lives in the intestines of healthy cattle and doesn’t usually make cattle sick there is no way to visually determine if the cattle are carrying STEC.

So why is ground beef potentially more dangerous than a t-bone steak?

There are a few reasons.

1.  Ground beef is from the cow’s rear end and so is E. coli.

E. coli lives in the intestines and feces of cattle.  Typically the cheapest cuts of beef, found near the tail, are used for ground beef.  During slaughter, these cuts of beef may come in contact with the intestines and become contaminated.

2.  Bacteria in ground beef is more difficult to kill.

When you cook a steak, the surface easily reaches the temperature required to kill any bacteria that might be present.  But in ground beef, more surface area is potentially exposed to E. coli contamination.  The bacteria on the surface of the beef is ground into the interior of the mass and spread throughout the ground beef during mixing.  That means you must make certain that the center of the thickest part reaches at least 160°F during cooking in order to kill any bacteria that might be present.  Medium doesn’t cut it.  Burgers usually need to be well done in order to reach 160°F.  Use a thermometer to check.

3.  Ground beef contains meat from many cattle.

One infected cow can contaminate many packages of ground beef because of how the meat is processed.  Meat production facilities often grind meat from multiple cattle together, resulting in contamination of the entire lot even if just a small amount of E. coli tainted meat from one cow is introduced.

What can be done?

Cook meats thoroughly.  The most common source of exposure to E. coli O157:H7 is from rare or inadequately cooked ground beef.  Ground beef should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F/ 70°C.  Use a thermometer as color is not a reliable indicator of “doneness”.

Wash your hands after handling raw or undercooked beef.

Use separate utensils, cutting boards, and plates for raw beef.  Don’t place your cooked burgers back onto the same plate that held the raw burgers.

Select grass fed beef.  Feeding cattle grass and hay instead of grain has also been shown to reduce E. coli infections:  Russell, J.B., F. Diez-Gonzalez, and G.N. Jarvis, “Potential Effect on Cattle Diets and the Transmission of Pathogenic Escherichia Coli to Humans” Microbes Infect 2, no, 1 (2000) 45-53.

Treat cattle with probiotics to reduce E. coli shedding.

Feed cattle orange peel to reduce levels of E. coli.

*According to 2011 estimates from the CDC


  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you for helping me explain to my husband why he should not be okay with his hamburgers a little pink on the inside.

  2. I like alot of things pink in the middle.