The 5 Riskiest Meats You're Eating

Rapidly proliferating bacteria in meat are increasing the chances that you can get sick, a new report finds.

April 22, 2013

Bacteria...the hidden treat hiding inside America's tastiest steaks.

Never again order your steak medium-rare, and treat any meat you bring home as "hazardous material." Those are the conclusions of a new report that ranks cuts of meat based on the probability they could make you sick—or, worse, possibly kill you.


The report, published by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is the result of an analysis of 12 years' worth of data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on foodborne illness outbreaks caused by meat and poultry products. "Unfortunately, we found a number of problems, and it's hard to point a finger at just one sector of the industry," says the study's lead author Sarah Klein, a senior attorney in CSPI's food-safety program.

How Dirty is the Meat You Eat?

Klein and her colleagues looked at the number of outbreaks and illnesses caused by various cuts of meat and poultry and the pathogens that caused them, then ranked meats by risk factor based on the severity of illness that different bacteria in meat can cause; some are very common and can give you a queasy stomach but not much else, while others, though rare, send people to the hospital and can even prove fatal. "We really wanted to illustrate not just will you get sick, but how sick are you going to get?" says Klein.

So how sick could you get? If you're eating chicken, very, and if you're eating steak, very much. Here's what else they found:

• Chicken. Americans eat more chicken than all types of beef combined, which may explain why more outbreaks linked to chicken were reported to CDC than any other meat product they analyzed. Most illnesses were caused by Salmonella and campylobacter, two bugs that originate in slaughterhouses and feedlots. But the report also found high rates of chicken-related illnesses caused by Clostridium perfringens, bacteria that multiply on cooked foods that are left at room temperature for too long after cooking. The infections they cause are generally mild but can lead to a life-threatening form of intestinal damage. "That may suggest we have problem in the restaurant industry with the way food is held after cooking," Klein says, adding that common restaurant practices, such as setting out buffets or partially cooking meats before they're ready to be served, could be making you sick.

• Ground beef. "Ground beef, we know historically, has been a risky product," Klein says, simply because the act of grinding together meat from different animals introduces the possibility that bacteria from one animal can contaminate meat from dozens of others. Ground beef was the second most common source of meat-related illness outbreaks in the period studied, and 90 percent of those recalls were due to the presence of E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria, all bacteria that originate in slaughterhouses and can lead to hospitalization, long-term health problems, or death.

• Beef (other cuts). The CDC lumps any beef that doesn't fall into other categories (ground beef, steak, or roast beef products) into an "other" category that includes things like beef tacos and beef jerky. Most of the illnesses caused by "other" beef could be attributed to Clostridium perfringens, the bacteria that "luxuriates" as Klein puts it, on the surfaces of foods left out for too long after cooking.

• Steak. Here's a dirty little secret about your steak dinner: Heavy use of antibiotics and other methods used on America's feedlots produce tougher meat, says Klein. So slaughterhouses have increasingly turned to a practice called "mechanical tenderization," a process that uses needles or blades to pierce the exterior of a piece of meat to tenderize it. However, in doing so, she says, those needles or blades drive any bacteria that may be living on the exterior of a piece of meat further into the flesh. So when that filet or T-bone reaches the restaurant and you order it medium-rare, the bacteria on the outside will be killed when the steak is seared, but anything living on the inside will continue to thrive. More than half of the 82 outbreaks linked to steak during the study period could be linked to E. coli, a bacterium that's commonly found on the exterior of whole cuts of meat. "One thing the meat industry needs to rectify immediately is labeling mechanically tenderized meat so consumers, and restaurant chefs, know which pieces of meat need to be cooked more thoroughly," she says.

9 Appalling Facts about Meat

• Turkey. Turkey was the source of the largest food recall in U.S. history, which occurred in 2011 when one person died and more than 100 were hospitalized after eating ground turkey products contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella. In total 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled, so it may come as no surprise that CSPI labeled it a "High Risk" meat. But it's not just Salmonella, nor just ground forms of turkey that are making people sick, the report found. The most common illness associated with turkey is caused by Clostridium perfringens, and the greatest numbers of turkey-related illnesses occur in November and December—prime turkey-cooking holidays.

Other risky meats that didn't land in the "Highest" or "High" risk categories but still pose a smaller foodborne-illness threat are barbecued beef and pork, deli meats, pork, roast beef, chicken nuggets, ham, and sausage. "Most of those foods are pre-cooked," Klein says, in industrial kitchens with fewer opportunities for dirty hands to dirty your meat. "Unfortunately, those products tend to be the least nutritious. Sometimes, the relationship between nutrition and safety doesn't always match."

Stay Safe

"Consumers should be able to enjoy the foods they like without worrying that it's going to send them to the hospital," she says, but ultimately, it's up to you to gird yourself against the mistakes and other dirty practices of the meat and poultry industries.

The American Meat Institute, a trade group representing meat producers and slaughterhouses, largely defended its safety record after reading CSPI's report, but, their statement read, "We do agree with CSPI's perspective that better food attribution data is needed to understand the causes of foodborne illnesses and potential strategies for improvement."

"Our current advice? Practice defensive eating," says Klein. Assume that all your meat is "hazardous material," she adds, and follow these commonsense meat-handling tips:

• Wash everything, including your hands. Wash your hands in soapy water for 20 seconds before handling food. (Regular soap will do—don't resort to using antibacterial soaps, which release nasty chemicals into your water supply.)

• Separate. Don't let the fresh produce you plan to eat raw come anywhere near your raw meat as you prepare them.

• Disinfect. After you cut your meat, wash cutting boards with hot soapy water and spray them and your countertops down with undiluted white vinegar followed by undiluted hydrogen peroxide, and don't rinse or wipe down the surfaces afterward. Doing so will kill E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella bacteria, according to a study in Food Microbiology.

• Add a meat thermometer to your kitchen gear. And adhere to U.S. Department of Agriculture–recommended cooking times for meats.

• Refrigerate leftovers within two hours. This goes for foods you’ve cooked at home and that doggy bag you brought home from the restaurant.