Beef: The Safest Meat

Published on: 08:42AM May 02, 2011

Which foodborne pathogen do you think, off the top of your head, does the most damage to the American public?

If you’re like me (and, I suspect 98% of the news reporters in the world) you’ll think Beef. E. coli O157H7. That’s the one we hear so much about.

Somehow, it seems beef is top of mind for food safety. A recent survey at (access it by following this link) indicates fresh meats are consumer’s biggest food safety concern.

But beef and E. coli were well down the list when the Emerging Pathogens Institute of the University of Florida released a report “The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations With The Greatest Burden on Public Health.

In fact, 0157 ranked sixth on the list of annual disease burdens.  Five pathogens did more damage, most of them much more. The report estimated their total monetary damage in 2009 at more than $12 billions, resulting in more than 50,000 hospitalizations and about 1,200 deaths. In contrast, the toll of  E. coli O157:E7 was $272 million, 2138 hospitalizations and 20 deaths.

That is, of course, too many deaths. I’m not suggested the beef industry needs to rest on its food safety laurels. But there are laurels. As the study points out, O157 is a serious problem, but, “there are other pathogens with less public awareness which warrant increased attention, both by the public and by the government.”

Beef was way down the list of food safety threats behind poultry, pork and produce. The way the study authors calculated things, in fact, beef is responsible for less than 10% of the $14 billion annual costs of food borne illness.

Who’d a thought it?

The most dangerous food-pathogen combination? Campylobacter in poultry, affecting more than 600,000 people and resulting in a calculated cost of $1.27 billion. Toxoplasma in pork added another $1.2 billion in costs, followed by listeria in deli meats at $1.1 billion and salmonellas in poultry adding $712 million. The biggest problem they found in beef was toxoplasma, at just over 1,000 hospitalizations and $689 million.

I’m not here to vouch for the report’s math or methodology. But their point is well taken. Regulators—and the news media—should pay more attention to the bigger problems. Poultry’s foodborne challenges dwarf those of beef.

I don’t know if beef has always been this safe. I doubt it ever was. It doesn’t, however, seem that way. We’ve got better ways of finding outbreaks, so somebody just reading headlines would get the impression things are worse than ever.

In fact, however, the post-mortem segments of the beef industry have made tremendous strides in getting O157 out of the beef supply. The incidence of the pathogen being found in ground beef samples fell by more than 60% during the last decade. Spurred by governmental oversight, trial lawyers and common business sense, processors continue to improve their systems. I’ve no doubt that our food supply overall—and beef in particular—is the safest it’s ever been. And I’ll give credit to those big packers.

One clue as to why is included in the report: “Listeria monocytogenes in deli meats ranks as the pathogen-food pair with the third highest disease burden, and recent studies suggest that the majority of these illnesses are due to retail-sliced deli meats rather than those that are prepackaged.”

The fact is that those big packers have good systems. All the talk, blogs and editorials about the risks of high-production facilities are mostly hooey. Quality control is easier in a big plant than in 100 grocery cutting areas or in 100 smaller plants. Mistakes are easier to identify and trace to one big plant than to one of 100 smaller ones. Prophylactic measures are more efficiently used in large plants.

I’m not one to suggest that beef is “safe enough,” mind you. We can do more and the industry’s beef safety summits strike me as important not only in the progress already made but in progress to come. That said, beef is pretty darned safe. A lot safer than the headlines might lead you to believe. The reason beef safety failures are so newsworthy is precisely because they are so uncommon.

Speaking of beef safety and how it is impacted by processing techniques, let me devote some space to the argument that plant “line speed” is THE food safety challenge. I was in Peru a few weeks back and got a photo of a really, really slow “line speed” in the Cuzco central market. I’m not sure how safe it is, but for those of you who want to get back to earlier times, It goes like this:

Meat cutter picks the head up off the floor.


Meat cutter trims, carefully, and removes the muzzle.


Meat cutter arranged individual cuts in an attractive display