6 Questions to Ask Before You Buy Ground Beef

By Steve Klingaman on 10 December 2009 14 comments
Photo: VirtualErn

Do you feel lucky?

That was pretty much the takeaway from a recent, chilling New York Times article about E. coli and ground beef. One hard truth: If only the family of 22-year-old Minnesotan Stephanie Smith had known to ask a few simple questions of the local grocer before buying ground beef, Stephanie might not be paralyzed today.

Stephanie’s Story

In the fall of 2007, Stephanie Smith was a vibrant 20-year-old children’s dance instructor who was stricken with E. coli (O157:H7) poisoning from a hamburger prepared by her mother. After exhibiting symptoms of food poisoning, she was hospitalized with severe complications. Her condition was so serious that she was placed in a coma for nine weeks to facilitate survival.

She experienced kidney failure; she could only breathe with the aid of a respirator. Her life hung in the balance for months. Her survival has been called a miracle. Today, Stephanie struggles to recapture the life she once knew. She may never walk — or dance — again. The agonies she faced and the brave recovery she mounted should not be a part of anyone’s life.

Stephanie’s illness prompted food giant Cargill to recall 844,812 pounds of ground beef patties.

Hamburger Is the Biggest Culprit

You might think people are paid to protect the quality of the food you buy. They are. But current USDA rules do not go far enough to protect our food supply in this category. In the meat department, hamburger is the biggest culprit in spreading E. coli. Why is that? A package of ground beef can include meat from many sources, all combined into a single product. If your ground beef comes from a variety of sources, it is only as good as the weakest link — and we are talking about a long supply chain with lots of permutations. Some of the ground beef in the mix that poisoned Stephanie came all the way from Uruguay!

That this staple of so many family diets is potentially suspect means you need to take special measures to ensure that your family cookout or meat loaf is safe.

Two Rules

One, don’t skimp. The pennies you save on ground beef could cost you big time. Economize on the catsup instead.

Two, buy brand name. Moreover, buy just one brand name — the brand you trust. If you want to alternate between brands, plan to ask the 6 questions for each brand you buy.

Now, a word about our 6 questions: First, you need to find a knowledgeable grocery worker, like a butcher, a meat department manager, or a store supervisor, to interview. Then you need to identify a particular brand about which you are going to inquire. Just because the meat is sold under a brand name does not mean it is safe.

You may have the best luck posing these questions to an actual butcher — the type of trained professional you will find in the meat department of a reputable grocery store. In a warehouse store, it may or may not be difficult to locate a person with sufficient knowledge of the brands it sells. If you can’t find anyone to answer your questions, inform the manager that you will be buying your ground beef elsewhere.

As you know, there are brand names, and then there are brand names. Small, specialty meat suppliers that supply natural beef, grass-fed beef, and organic beef will generally pass the quiz with flying colors. Of course you pay for it — through the nose some would say. Remember, you don’t have to go with a specialty brand but…and this won’t surprise you either…smaller, higher end, and store brands produced by high end chains are most likely to pass muster.

The 6 Questions

1. Do they use beef from a variety of sources combined in a single grind?

2. Do they test ingredients before they are ground?

3. Do they use fatty trimmings purchased from slaughterhouses?

4. Do they use meat derivatives in their ground beef?

5. Do they use imported beef?

6. Have they been cited for recent food safety violations

Not so hard. You don’t have to be a food scientist to master these. Just print them out and bring them with you to the store.

Using a simple Good/Not-so-Good scale, you can probably guess the correct answers. Test ingredients — good. Meat derivatives — not so good.

What the Answers Mean

Let’s put some anticipated answers in context:

1. Do they use beef from a variety of sources combined in a single grind?

Some meet processors do not combine sources. This is better by far. It means they deal with a single supplier and can therefore better ensure quality. Some have longstanding relations with their suppliers. A few are, in effect, their own suppliers.

If the processor does combine meat from a variety of sources — and most do — testing is all the more important.

2. Do they test ingredients before they are ground?

Most don't test until after the beef is combined with products from a variety of sources and ground. Some say this is due to processor fears about implicating sub-par suppliers. But what you don’t know can hurt you. So press this point, particularly if the processor uses beef from a variety of sources. Is it a deal breaker? (In my mind, yes.) Most likely, if the company that processed Stephanie’s ground beef tested before grinding, she would be dancing today.

3. Do they use fatty trimmings purchased from slaughterhouses?

Fatty trimmings are 50% fat. Who wants that in their diet? Besides, processors routinely treat the trimmings with ammonia to rid the meat of bacteria. Ugh! Who wants that? Ammonia is for cleaning glass.

4. Do they use meat derivatives in their ground beef?

Call it slop. Or worse. Meat derivatives are unacceptable in every case.

5. Do they use imported beef?

Some imported beef comes from Canada. No problem there. The Canadian system is more stringent than that of the U.S. The Canadians have adopted the National Cattle Identification System using RFID ear tags to identify each individual cow before it leaves the herd. The system employs these radio frequency tags to track down problems before they get out of hand. A similar system is under discussion for implementation in the U.S.

Beef from South America is a different story. Though U.S. inspectors go abroad for periodic checks, sometimes they find problems. They did in Uruguay. And in between inspections, who knows? Beef imported from South America should be tested in advance. The odds are it is not.

6. Have they been cited for recent food safety violations?

What are violations? Ask about recalls or, more commonly, citations issued. In some cases, like Stephanie's, USDA inspectors say meat processors don't follow their own rules.

“Every time we look, we find out that things are not what we hoped they would be,” said Loren D. Lange, an executive associate in the Agriculture Department’s food safety division.

The USDA has its own problems. It is designed to promote and regulate food production. Those are two very different missions. So it has an inherent conflict of interest in its role as watchdog. Unfortunately, that means that just because the USDA knows meat processors aren't exactly following the rules doesn't mean the agency will protect you.

For example, when the USDA conducts routine inspections of meat processing plants they often schedule them with the processor in advance. Given that we know that some food processors cut corners, why make it so easy to cheat?

Asking My Grocers

I tried out the 6 questions on three retail operations: a better quality regional grocery chain outlet, a “big box” grocer, and a stand-alone butcher shop.

The man at the meat counter at the reputable grocery store focused on two brands, both small producers. One provided grass fed beef; the other did not. My grocer knew all the answers. What’s more, he welcomed my questions. Both of these vendors used single source beef; both tested and retested their beef. Neither used questionable byproducts. In addition, the store offered its own grind. On the subject of testing, my grocer volunteered that the store engaged an outside testing firm to conduct random tests of its own meat counter operations. Did I feel safe with these producers? Yes.

The meat department person at the big box store was friendly, knowledgeable, and offered that the brand of ground beef in question was multi-sourced, and tested before grinding. He didn’t know some of the other details.

The butcher, as you might expect, knew his wares thoroughly and spoke with pride about the relationship he had with his single-source, long-term supplier. He grinds some of his own beef, too.

So, three retailers, three approaches to ground beef safety. Though I was encouraged by the answers provided by the big box store, I still needed more information — for example, did the supplier use fatty trimmings in the grind? That information was not forthcoming from the higher ups. They invited me to put my question in writing, something the average consumer is not likely to do.

The Takeaway

Is asking a few questions a fail-safe measure? No, not exactly. But, given a climate of uncertainty about the safety of ground beef, it can help you avoid the “I dunno” factor. Asking about the origins of your food supply is a fundamental tool with which to protect your family against unsafe meat products.

And of course, none of this eliminates the necessity of safe food handling practices in your own kitchen. Remember the essence of the final question we asked: do you follow your own rules?

The E. coli outbreak that sickened Stephanie Smith is estimated to have sickened 940 people. An outbreak can sicken thousands across any number of states.

According to the USDA, less than .5% of ground beef is contaminated with E. coli. But then, inspecting meat is a little like inspecting the breaks on a school bus. The failure rate is low, but the human cost is off the charts.

Food safety is ultimately up to you.

This is a guest post by Steve Klingaman, a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer living in Minneapolis.

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Guest's picture

Interesting post. The take home message is your last sentence. Food safety is up to us. The USDA only provides a false sense of security.

We recently purchased a whole cow from a local butcher. I'll admit, we didn't ask those questions, but I know the meat all came from the same cow.

Guest's picture

I'm sure that asking these questions does make consuming ground beef somewhat safer, but I don't believe it's enough.

I personally don't eat beef for a variety of reasons (safety being one), but if I did I would only buy grass-fed and locally produced. Even then you are risking contamination from the slaughter house. Farmer's aren't allowed to slaughter their own meat, so there are always going to be risks involved. Unless you can find a farmer willing to risk the legal implications of slaughtering animals themselves.

Guest's picture
Bill - The Carbon Credit King

In the Vegetarian push? The new T.V. lineup and most A.P. feeding newspapers are going to push the vegetarian agenda, heavily.

Cook the beef, you will be fine. Sheesh.

Guest's picture

About Stephanie's story or that ground beef could be so dangerous to us. Hopefully the supermarket where I buy my meats will be able to answer these questions. I am hopeful because they have been very knowledgeable in the past.

Guest's picture

That's a lot of questions for a slab of ground beef.

Guest's picture

..."a little like inspecting the *breaks* on a school bus"... I think you mean brakes

Guest's picture

Nice article. My solution to this problem is to grind my own beef. I use a grinder attachment on my stand mixer and I am quite happy with the results. While this does not eliminate all of the potential problems I feel that buying whole cuts from the butcher is a better practice than prepackaged ground beef.

Guest's picture

Look, I don't want to buy diseased meat - no one does. At the same time, cooking meat to the proper temperature will kill E. coli. If her meat was cooked correctly then she wouldn't have become ill, that's a fact. It's easy to blame the factories, and they *should* carry some of the blame, but at the same time people have to handle and cook their meat correctly if they want to insure that they are protecting their families. If you want to annoy your butcher playing 20 questions then go for it. If you want to pay an arm and a leg for organic grass fed local beef that's your choice too. Just remember that proper handling of meat in your kitchen can prevent illness as well. It's a horrible thing when someone loses their quality of life to disease, but this story was one that could have been prevented in her own kitchen, regardless of what happened in the factory.

Guest's picture

Or better yet, buy a half of a cow (or whole cow) from a cattle farmer. The meat tastes MUCH better, less fatty, and you know where that cow has been. It also doesn't have to cost as much as the fancy labeled organic kind.

Guest's picture

There are a number of ways meat tainted with E. coli can contaminate your meals. As the New York Times says, "While thorough cooking can kill E. coli O157:H7, it is dangerous even in microscopic doses and can be spread from utensils or cooking surfaces to other foods." (11/03/09).

Guest's picture

Even better than those six questions is a quick click over to Localharvest.org. Look for suppliers of pastured meat products in your area. Cows fed on grass in the sunshine don't need to be dosed with antibiotics and develop pathogens MUCH less easily. Plus, you're voting with your dollar for a more sustainable, humane burger. Leave the CAFO way of eating and shake the hand that feeds you. (Don't know what a CAFO is? Click over to TheMeatrix.com )

Just because it's in a grocery store does NOT mean it's safe to eat, health and life supporting or delicious.

Guest's picture

Nice "think of the children" jab at the end with the school bus' brakes.

Here's a takeaway for the author: cook your meats properly.

Guest's picture
E Rick

E coli can be killed by cooking meats thoroughly but personally I don't enjoy well done burgers and steaks. Also there is still a risk of cross contamination in the kitchen. E. coli can be greatly reduced in the cow by eating a natural diet of grass. One report said that CAFO cows have 314% more E. coli in their body than CAFO animals. Studies have even shown that CAFO cows finished on some short duration of grass have a significantly lower amount of E. coli in their body. That means that the meat coming into the kitchen is a much lower risk that the factory cow. The last option is of course going vegetarian. That too has risks. How did the tomato and spinach outbreaks happen? It doesn't protect a vegetarian. The infected cow waste is being used as fertilizers on vegetables because it is cheap. Why are people so unwilling to look at our food system especially meats and see how unhealthy it is for the animals, human consumption, the environment. Watch Food Inc. and see what you think.

Guest's picture

I really worry about buying any type of meat from car boot sales - I don't like the idea of someone pitching up and selling meat and then going...