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is organic ground beef safe from ecoli?

I need some help from others who know a thing or two about beef. lately, I've been reading how ground beef from large factories like Cargill is not safe from ecoli. But what about organic beef that I buy from Whole Foods? I'm not a huge beef eater so I'm sort of new to the whole beef thing. I've been making meat sauce for my toddler who happens to be a super picky eater but has a soft spot for meat sauce. I'm getting paranoid.

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  1. I don't see why organic ground beef should be any lower risk for E coli than non-organic, but given the extremely low risk, why should you be paranoid? The likelihood that your toddler will get hit by lightning is far higher, provided you properly cook the beef. Do you worry about that?

      1. The term organic beef relates to the steer, not the processing facility

        1. My understanding (mostly from reading a lot of Michael Pollan) is that corn-fed cows (ie most beef raised in the US) have a much higher instance of e coli than grass-fed ones. Cows did not evolve to eat a diet of corn, so their stomachs can't handle it well, and the digestive systems of corn-fed cows become much more susceptible to many strains of e. coli than grass-fed ones. The bacteria then end up in their wastes, which in large feedlots often stays right where they drop it, gets stepped in, splashed up onto their hide, etc (and we're not talking nice little cow patties on a corn diet). If a cow has manure on its hide when it's slaughtered, it's possible (and not unlikely, depending on the vigilance of the processing plant) that some of that manure, and the e coli in it, will get on the meat, where various sanitary procedures usually, but not always, kill it, as we've seen from a lot of recent news items. Moral of the story: I only eat grass-fed beef. (Not that it's 100% safe either, nothing is, but certainly better.) Check with Whole Foods as to whether their beef is grass- or corn-finished if you're worried. (From what I understand, organic can be either, but that could be wrong.)

          9 Replies
          1. re: Emmmily

            Good point! I believe, although I could be wrong, that grass-fed beef has quite a distinctly different flavour than corn fed beef. You may want to look into this further - your toddler may not like grass-fed, which I've heard can be quite strong in taste.

            1. re: vorpal

              my toddler only eats grass fed and seems to like it. i haven't fed him any other. as far as if i'm worried if he'll get hit by lightning, no, but i worry about what gets put in his body. sounds like you don't have kids or maybe you're just a relaxed parent. once you have a child who is super underweight and is a picky eater who also happens to be allergic to quite a lot of foods it becomes a perfect storm for a paranoid parent. then add all these articles about ecoli, it's enough to make my son a vegan. but then again every time i've had food poisoning, i suspect it's been from lettuce or some leafy greens so there goes that idea. i do cook the crap out of the meat (2 hrs simmer in the sauce) so i suppose we're ok. I reached out to chowhound b/c as i mentioned i'm not a huge meat eater and not familiar with cooking it so much. thanks for the input.

              1. re: vorpal

                yeah, it tastes like.......wait for it.............COW.

                and Corn finishing beef, even if primarily raised on grass, turns their digestive system south right before the slaughter. Which, gets you right back to square one.

              2. re: Emmmily

                thanks for the intelligent and informative response emmmily!

                1. re: Emmmily

                  Emmmily, sounds to me like Michael Pollan is selling books, not facts. Fact: ALL cows have ecoli in their digestive system, just as all humans do. Without the e-coli we could not digest our food. Neither humans nor cows are born with e-coli present in their digestive systems, but acquire them soon after birth. From there, an evolutionary process takes over and soon each individual has a personal strain of echoli that is totally incompatible with any other individual's e-coli. Which is why it makes us sick when we eat something with even a tinge of foriegn e-coli attached to it.

                  So, in answer to trolley's original question, whether or not ANY beef product, regardless of cattle breed, carries e-coli depends wholly and entirely on how it's handled in the slaughter/packing house. To go back to Michael Pollan a moment, it would seem logical that grass fed beef and other "elite" types of cattle are slaughtered and dressed in smaller, less hurried facilities and may well have a lower degree of contamination. If you want e-coli free beef, your best bet is to raise and slaughter it yourself. Not very likely, but it is a much surere bet.

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Just went back to the book; what he says is this: All cows have e coli in their stomachs. The stomachs (rumens) of grass-fed cattle are much less acidic than our stomachs, so the strains of e coli most common in them are killed by our stomach acid if we do eat some, and we don't get sick. (Again, there are other more harmful strains as well, but they're not as prevalent.) Corn-fed cattle have much more acidic rumen, so the strain of e coli (O157:H7) which has evolved within their gut can easily survive our stomachs and make us sick. Pollan cites a study at Cornell that showed feeding a cow grass and hay for the last few days of its life reduces the more-deadly strains of e coli by 80%, but this is rarely done. So it's not that grass-fed beef don't harbor e coli, it's that the strain of e coli that thrives in the stomachs, and hence the manure, of corn-fed cows is potentially much more deadly to humans. (This is all from pg 82 of Omnivore's Dilemma, if you're curious. It's on Google Books, or a version of it appeared as an article in the NY Times years ago: www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/magazine/p...)

                    Again though, all this is from a single source, so take it with a grain of salt.

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      Michael Pollan's books are rigorously researched. You may disagree with his conclusions, but he lays out the facts that underlie them in a way that's pretty hard to argue with.

                      As for your claim that "elite" beef are slaughtered in "smaller, less hurried facilities" - would that it were so. My cattle-ranching friends complain constantly that they have to use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and the approval process is so onerous that, with rare exception, only industrial-scale abattoirs can comply.

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        It is possible to have your animal, wild game or domestic, butchered by your local butcher at a cold locker. In my area, I know of two operations that "ranch butcher" for animals not slaughtered in large, commercial houses.

                        1. re: BN1

                          True, but that's only for personal consumption. If its meat is going to be offered for sale, an animal must be slaughtered in a USDA-approved slaughterhouse with a federal inspector present. There are only a few hundred of these in the US, and they're almost all very large operations.

                  2. If you are in the states you can get irradiated meat (Like pastuerised) if you are really worried, but just cook your ground meat to 160 F and practice good food hygiene (no cross contamination, handwashing, etc.) and you should not have to worry about the safety of your toddler.

                    1. No industrially-ground beef is safe from e coli. But on the other hand, if you're making meat sauce, it isn't an issue. The cooking process will kill any bacteria. No need for paranoia.

                      For applications where you're not going to cook the beef fully (eg, medium-rare burgers), buy it fresh-ground from a source you know and keep it cold. Better yet, grind it yourself. It's easy and cheap, and the results will taste better than anything you'll ever get when somebody else grinds the meat.

                      30 Replies
                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Although it's not worth worrying about, I've read a few articles about people contracting deadly strains of E coli from fully and properly cooked ground beef and subsequently dying from it... the risk is incredibly small, but existent.

                        1. re: vorpal

                          Then the meal in question wasn't properly cooked or it wasn't handled properly because although E. coli is always mutating, there is NOT a heat resistant one that is pathogenic.

                          Alan, It doesn't matter how fresh the beef is or even if you are grinding it yourself (unless you blanch the outside of the entire muscle before grinding) because as little as 100 cells of pathogenic E. coli can make an adult sick and much less in some cases with toddlers.

                          If I was in the states and I wanted a medium done hamburger I'd get irradiated meat, but it is illegal in Canada because average consumers don't understand the irradiation process and think radiation sickness whenever Health Canada broaches the subject.

                          1. re: Bryn

                            Ah, you're right. I was searching for the article I read, and found one on the same topic published by a more reputable source: the initial article claiming that even properly cooked hamburger can result in E. coli appears to be incorrect.

                            1. re: vorpal

                              vorpal, could you possibly be misremembering an article about mad cow disease (bovine Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease)? Prions, the cause of mad cow disease, cannot be killed by any known means. Cooking has no effect. Nor does irradiation. They are sort of a cross between a chemical compound and a life form, and are not effected by cooking at any temperature at which food is prepared.

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                e.coli, CJD, all reasons to grind your own beef. When there was a recall that corralled Trader Joe's meat among others, I knew there were truly no more "safe" sources out there, and we grind our own and do not eat ground meat away from home now.

                                1. re: rockandroller1

                                  Inspectors at processing plants look for obvious contamination as in the dirty hide noted above by Emmily.
                                  When the digestive tract is removed from a carcass there is a possibility of cross contamination. A knife used inside the rib cage can become contaminated and should not be used on the meat outside the cage without sterilizing first.
                                  The hanger steak has to be removed, and is dangerously close to the tract. (It even has a slight offal taste). This often goes into the ground beef mix.
                                  In both the U.S. and Canada there is less veterinary inspection on the floor of the abattoir than formerly. And we now get Mexican beef in both countries, as the fresh meat can be processed in the U.S. and get a USDA stamp of approval.
                                  I still like my burgers medium rare, but I get them from a single source, one cow at a time.

                                  1. re: jayt90

                                    Since we've been buying sides of beef from local farmers--whether all grass fed or corn finished--and having the meat processed by small, local butchers (who are far more likely to have the "down time" to clean their equipment between uses, and who do NOT combine different customer's orders) our instance of "food nasties" from home food has dropped to practically zero.

                                    Out to eat? That's a different matter. :-(

                                    However, we--oddly--find that the small, ethnic mom-and-pop restaurants (Vietnamese and Mexican flourish, here) seem to have better food handling procedures and safer ingredients than do the larger "chains" and more mainstream restaurants.

                                  1. re: greygarious

                                    LOL! None of that equipment, those chemicals or protocols are available in my kitchen! How about yours?

                                    So let me rephrase: Prions cannot be killed, neutralized or made safe for human consumption using any of the available means of preparing food by the home cook. Okay? '-)

                                    1. re: Caroline1

                                      You mean all those evenings I've been eating beef dinners in my haz-mat suit was not safeguarding me? OMG!

                                      1. re: Caroline1

                                        Aw, c'mon - haven't you ever had an incinerated steak? My last one was at "Crapital Grille" - the one in Boston. Maybe they'd do better with an autoclave.... ;>p

                                2. re: Bryn

                                  While grinding your own is no guarantee, the fact that your chopped beef is coming from a single cow, reduces the odds of contamination. I'v read that a package of chopped beef from one of the large meatpacking plants can contain meat from a hundred cows.

                                  Also, see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/677387

                                  1. re: Rmis32

                                    I see what you are saying, but it only takes one cell and as for that article I don't read newspaper articles as fact. Where are the references? I can tell it isn't peer reviewed. There does appear to be a colour change in that beef, so I doubt it would be easily accepted by the public and new regulations would have to be put in place in order to quantify safe ammonia levels in the beef.

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        We are talking about a toddler here.

                                  2. re: Bryn

                                    But if you're starting with a whole muscle cut, the odds of there being even 100 cells of pathogenic e. coli present are pretty minimal. There aren't many opportunities for contamination, and even if a few bacteria find their way to the surface of the meat, it just isn't a hospitable environment for them.

                                    Industrial ground beef, on the other hand, comes from meat that's been trimmed and scraped off the carcass. Compared to, say, a chuck roast, the surface area - and thus the opportunity for contamination - is orders of magnitude greater. And if you believe that trimmings that get dropped on the floor never make it to the hamburger barrel, I've got a bridge to sell you.

                                    Then you take that meat and grind it, pushing any bacteria present from the relatively inhospitable surface of a muscle into the nice moist center of a chub. And instead of being consumed immediately, it gets trucked around the country and sits in a supermarket's meat case and in a home refrigerator for days or weeks. All we need now is a little carelessness with regard to temperature and - bingo! - near-perfect conditions for the growth of a bacterial colony.

                                    I'm not saying that the chances of infection from home-ground beef are zero. But they're far, far less than the risk presented by industrially-ground beef. Nothing in life is risk-free; we each need to make our own risk assessments. I personally will eat a medium-rare burger, but only if it's home-ground. YMMV.

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      Jfood's shopping list for 2010 is a meat grinder. Even though the burger meat he buys from a supermarket that grinds on site, he'll keep to his conservative nature and reading numerous threads and do the dirty deed.

                                      Maybe he will even coddle an egg and make a little tartare in 2010? :-))

                                      1. re: jfood

                                        Yum! You can even blanch the beef and use a pasteurized egg. More hassle, but near-absolute safety. And delicious eats either way.

                                        Regardless of food safety issues, it's been my experience that the best **tasting** hamburgers come from ground beef that's been handled as little as possible. When you grind your own, you cut out a couple of steps that require at least some handling.

                                        The real downside is that hamburgers just cry out for french fries, which are sooooo easy to make using the Joel Robuchon cold-oil method. And I really don't need to be adding more french fries to my diet...

                                        1. re: jfood

                                          I have both an old fashioned "crank the handle" meat grinder and a Cuisinart food processor. Frankly, when I cube the beef correctly, I don't find that much difference (if any) between grinding and processing. Well, not that much difference in the finished product, but a whooooooooole lot of difference in the work! Guess which method I use? I have about two pounds of eye of round in the refrigerator that I processed yesterday. Excellent, except I do need to keep some suet in the freezer. This is a bit too far on the lean side, and fat *is* flavor!

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            I'm a big fan of motorization. I use the grinder attachment to my KitchenAid mixer. It takes less careful prep than the food processor, and delivers more consistent results.

                                            Slightly off-topic - my 16-year-old daughter, who for years has been delegated the task of turning the crank on the pasta machine, found out this week that relatively inexpensive electric motor attachments are available. She was not amused.

                                          2. re: jfood

                                            Hey jfood, we finally bit the bullet and bought one about 4 months ago, it was recommended by Michael Ruhlman on Open Sky (have you visited that site yet? It's neat. Free ship too). It's loud, but very tough and does a great job. It even grinded up stick pepperoni for a holiday spread I like to make.


                                            1. re: rockandroller1

                                              Jfood will probably not spend that much but thank you for the advice. Will probably get the attachment for the KA mixer. Plus he is in th market for a pressur canner so he can bottle instead of freeze some sauces so the family can use while he travels.

                                              Happy Near Year R&R and look forward to exchanging differing views for another year.

                                              1. re: jfood

                                                I don't have a KA or I probably would have gone that route. But this way I can make a lot of other stuff too. mr. RNR would like us to start making sausage but I said not until we buy a house, just not practical in a tiny apartment, but at least we have the equipment when the time comes. post back and let me know how the KA attachment works out - I understood that to be more "chopped" beef instead of ground, which wouldn't work out for some of my preparations.

                                                and yes, happy NY to you too and to another year of exchanging differing viewpoints. :)

                                                1. re: rockandroller1

                                                  The KitchenAid attachment works exactly like the meat grinder you're using - worm gear, cutter blade, and extrusion plates with holes of various sizes - and will produce identical results. Not "chopped beef" at all.

                                                  As far as sausage making goes, I can see how hanging salame to cure might be an issue when you've got limited space. But a few pounds of fresh sausage (bratwurst, Italian links, etc.) doesn't take up any room other than a few cubic inches in the fridge or freezer. And you can make stuff that's healthier and tastier than anything available in the store...

                                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                                    Happy New Year Al

                                                    Do you have a sausage attachment that you use?

                                                    1. re: jfood

                                                      Happy New Year to you, too!

                                                      I do. It's basically just a plastic horn that goes on the front of the grinder. Nothing like homemade Italian sausage on a crusty bun with grilled peppers and onions...

                                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                                        Any good sites for sausage recipes?

                                                        1. re: jfood

                                                          Here's a Batali recipe that I make all the time. I don't make the pepper part just the sausage.


                                                          Note that the amount of red pepper flakes is for the sausage and the peppers. First time I added it all to the sausage and it was too spicy. I've developed a little trick when I'm grinding the meats. First I use the biggest, widest pasta or salad bowl I have. Then I alternate the two meats while grinding and give the bowl maybe a quarter turn every one in a while. I also make up the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and periodically add some to the ground meat. The point is to handle the meat as little as possible. It's all but mixed when I'm done grinding; just a little to blend it.

                                                          I also think the KA attachment does a great job. I use it for sausage, ground beef and turkey.

                                                      2. re: alanbarnes

                                                        thx. You seriously have not seen our fridge or freezer. TMI warning but the freezer is full of frozen milk for my baby, there is almost no room for food in it any longer, and the fridge is PACKED all the time because we can't eat out as I am on a dairy and soy free diet while BFing the little one. We seriously could not wedge much into our fridge, or anywhere else in our apt.

                                      2. There are several issues being discussed here:

                                        organic vs. non-organic
                                        grass fed vs. corn fed
                                        small lot vs. large lot

                                        Maybe more. The conversation keeps expanding.

                                        These are different issues. For example, grass feed beef is not necessarily organic.