E. Coli in Beef

Protecting Yourself From E. coli

It takes more than buying a different brand of ground meat to avoid exposure to this potentially dangerous illness.

By: David A Fein, MD
Medical Director

Undoubtedly, you have heard the warnings in the media lately about the potential dangers of bacterial contamination in our food. But if you think that grinding beef yourself, using better cuts of meat or avoiding certain brands and buying your meats from a more “upscale” source will offer protection, think again.

The recall of 22 million pounds of ground beef produced by Topps is just the latest case of a dangerous form of E. coli showing up in common foods and it underscores the need for consumers to be aware of the steps to take to avoid serious illness. But the fact is that E. coli is extremely common throughout the food chain and particularly in beef. E. coli is one of the most common bacteria present in the intestines of humans, cows and many other animals. Most of the strains of the bacteria are relatively harmless. However, one particular strain of the bacteria, known as E. coli 0157:H7, is more virulent and dangerous. It was first isolated in 1975 and was identified as a human pathogen in 1982. In recent months it has been showing up with increasing frequency.

Unlike exposure to the more common and generally harmless strains of E.coli, oral intake of even a small amount of 0157:H7 can cause severe illness. Ground beef poses the biggest risk for a simple reason. E. coli contamination usually occurs during slaughter and subsequent handling of the meat. Intestinal contents of the animal can directly come into contact with the carcass or may contaminate slaughterhouse and butchering equipment. It is a safe assumption that some E. coli, whether pathogenic or not, will be present on the surface of just about all meats.

When you grill, broil or roast a piece of beef the external surface of the meat, where the bacteria are found, will be exposed to very high temperatures. This is virtually always sufficient to kill any bacteria on the surface of the meat. So long as the meat is otherwise intact, it is very unlikely that any bacteria have penetrated to the interior of the meat where temperatures are much lower during cooking.

When you grind beef, you take the exterior of the meat and make it part of the interior. Since every hamburger, meat loaf, sausage and meatball has some meat on the inside that was once part of the outside of the meat, and since all of the meat was exposed to the potentially contaminated grinding equipment, it is a good assumption that E.coli and other bacteria are inside the meat where it is not directly exposed to the high heat of the cooking source. These bacteria are now much harder to kill.
The risk of E. coli poisoning is really not related nearly as much to the quality of meat or the cleanliness of the butcher as it is to the simple fact that grinding puts the outside of the raw meat on the inside of the ground meat where the bacteria are protected from direct exposure to heat. Freezing is also generally not adequate protection from E. coli. It appears that the bacteria is often able to survive the temperatures found in most home freezers. There is no reason to assume that by avoiding a particular brand of meat, or grinding your own meats, you are protecting yourself or your family.

The only sure way to protect yourself from E. coli in ground meats is thoroughly cook the meat. The interior temperature must reach at least 155 degrees all the way through the meat. At this temperature, there will not be any pink in the center of your hamburger and the juices from the meat will be clear. Those of you who like your hamburgers medium rare take note. It may not taste as good when cooked to well done but thoroughly cooking all ground meat products is the only safe way to protect against E.coli and other bacterial food poisonings.

Adequate sanitation in your kitchen when handling any meats is also critical. Assume that every time you touch a piece of meat or anything else that has come in contact with that meat that you have E. coli on your hands. Any kitchen utensil, cutting board, plate, etc., that comes into contact with uncooked meat should never touch cooked food or other items that are ready to be served without further cooking. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meats and wipe your hands with disposable towels only. When washing your hands remember that the amount of time you spend scrubbing your hands is much more important that the water temperature or type of soap you use. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. All utensils and other items in contact with raw meat should be thoroughly cleaned too. The most effective is to run them through your dishwasher on the Sanitize setting. Never allow any marinade or sauce that has come in contact with the raw meat to come back in contact with any food once you have started cooking.

At Princeton Longevity Center we strongly encourage everyone to ensure that all ground meat products, regardless of the source, are thoroughly cooked and that you pay careful attention to avoiding any cross-contamination from any uncooked meats to other surfaces or foods in the kitchen.