Big Beef: Yeah, there’s probably fecal bacteria in your burgers, no big deal

Don’t think about what’s inside.
Don’t think about what’s inside.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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This post has been corrected and updated.

Americans love burgers.

US restaurants served 8.9 billion burgers in the year ending in June 2015, says NPD Group. More than half of Americans—57%—eat at least one burger every week, according to the research firm Technomic.

But according to a new analysis by the Consumer Reports, all of those burgers probably had a bit of fecal bacteria in them. Big Beef’s lobbying group, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), however, says not to worry. A little bit of bacteria won’t hurt you.

Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of ground beef, totaling 458 pounds (208 kg), from 103 stores in 26 American cities. The watchdog group and publication bought meat at grocery stores, big-box outlets and natural food stores and included conventional beef (raised in feedlots with antibiotics and hormones, and fed a diet of mostly grain and soy); more sustainably produced beef (in this report, that meant that at a minimum, the beef was raised without antibiotics); as well as organic and grass-fed varieties.

It found bacteria signaling fecal contamination, enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli, in every single pound. That’s right, every single pound.

In a statement on its site, NAMI does not deny the presence of these bacteria, but rather that hey, the situation could be a lot worse.

“Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria,” the statement says.

“The real headline here is the bacteria that Consumer Reports doesn’t report finding in their testing—Shiga toxin-producing E. coli—and just one percent of samples with Salmonella, a number far below USDA performance standards, which are the foodborne bacteria of greatest public health concern in beef,” said Betsy Booren of NAMI, in the statement.

According to Gary Acuff, a consultant endorsed by NAMI and a professor in the department of animal science at Texas A&M University, which has organized events with NAMI, the reliability of bacterial indicators can depend on many factors, and the presence of these bacteria (aside from E. Coli) do not necessarily indicate fecal contamination. But several independent microbiologists have confirmed to Quartz that it is extremely unlikely that the bacteria found in the ground beef tested came from other sources besides feces.

The organization says the results prove that ground beef in the US is actually “safer than ever.”

Whether or not you find that comforting, the best way to kill the bacteria in ground beef that is dangerous is to be sure you cook your burger all the way through, to at least 160°F (70°C).

Correction: This post has been corrected to show that fecal bacteria, not necessarily fecal matter, was found in the ground beef. The post also has been updated with the viewpoints of a NAMI consultant and several independent experts regarding the reliability of bacterial indicators.