When you sink your teeth into a juicy, tasty burger, the last thing on your mind is that you could be taking your life in your hands. But as it turns out, you may be playing Russian roulette with your health every time you take a bite.
That’s because the ground beef that makes up food favorites like hamburgers and meatballs can contain potentially deadly bacteria, such as E.coli (particularly Escherichia coli O157:H7), as well as Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus—all of which can cause serious illness, especially if you’re very young, very old or have a compromised immune system.
An E-coli infection can bring on abdominal cramping, diarrhea (or bloody diarrhea), kidney failure and even death, while the Salmonella health risks include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and nausea, according to nutritionist Keri Glassman, author of “The O2 Diet: The Cutting Edge Antioxidant-Based Program That Will Make You Healthy, Thin, and Beautiful.” Not exactly what you’d call “good times.”
What’s more, “you can’t eye food-borne illness—you can’t see it or smell it,” says Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “And it only takes a little bit of E.coli to make people very sick.”But the fact that eating ground beef can be a gamble shouldn’t come as a surprise. The news frequently reports recalls of ground beef tainted with E.coli.
Just last month, Tyson Fresh Meats recalled more than 131,000 pounds of ground beef after a family in Ohio got sick from eating the manufacturer’s beef, which tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.
All four children in the family fell ill, including a nine-year-old with severe diarrhea who was hospitalized for 10 days.
What Hamburgers Are Really Made Of
So why is ground beef particularly problematic? Part of the reason is because of where it comes from. What few people realize is that hamburgers are basically made from meat mash-ups.
“Ground beef is not the meat of a single cow,” explains Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. “Many consumers have the mistaken impression that it comes from a single animal. The way meat is produced today, a single burger can contain meat from 12 to 20 animals.”
And sometimes the ground beef comes from animals in different parts of the world in order to get the right mix of lean and fat meat. “What that means is the risks that we’re exposed to are not just risks from a single animal and what the animal itself was exposed to, but rather different hazards coming from different areas of the country or different parts of the world,” continues DeWaal.
Adds Glassman, “The parts of the cow used for low-grade meats are the areas that are most likely to be contaminated with feces. The meat companies do not test for E-coli O157:
H7 when the ingredients are separate; they only check for E-coli when the meat is ground all together.”