You know that eating a rare hamburger can mean taking your life in your hands because of E. coli.
You’re smart enough to cut raw chicken away from other foods because of Salmonella.
But when it comes to meat and food safety, are you still swallowing the following dangerous myths?
MYTH #1: ORGANIC GRASS-FED BEEF HAS FEWER BAD BACTERIA.
Last year, a consumer organization released a report claiming that sustainably produced beef is safer than conventionally produced beef. The researchers found that conventional beef had higher levels of bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics. They recommended that consumers buy sustainably raised beef—from cattle that was raised, at a minimum, without antibiotics and, ideally, by organic and grass-fed methods. The trouble with this report, however, is that the types of bacteria found most often during this testing process rarely cause foodborne illness. Of the bacteria types of greatest public concern, E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, only one of 300 beef samples had Salmonella and no E. coli O157:H7 were detected. There are good reasons to buy sustainably raised beef—nutritional, environmental and ethical—but avoiding foodborne illness is not one of them.
Bottom Line: In terms of foodborne illness, sustainably raised beef is no safer than conventionally raised beef.
MYTH #2: HALAL BEEF IS SAFER THAN OTHER BEEF.
Halal is an Arabic word that means “permissible,” and it’s used to describe how animals should be raised and a process of slaughtering animals designed to minimize their pain. This makes the meat acceptable for devout Muslims to consume. Traditionally, the animal being slaughtered must be healthy, the animal must be facing Mecca at the time of slaughter, a very sharp knife must be used and the name of God must be said before slaughter. Today, in the US, most halal meat is produced in commercial slaughterhouses staffed with trained Muslim workers along with government inspectors. So while there is an extra layer of supervision, the focus is on spiritual purity and not science-based safety. Halal certification does not guarantee that the food is free from harmful pathogens.
Bottom Line: Halal meat is no safer than conventionally produced meat.
MYTH #3: KOSHER CHICKEN IS SAFER THAN OTHER CHICKEN.
Like Halal meat, kosher meat is raised, slaughtered and prepared according to religious guidelines, in this case so that it’s acceptable for consumption by devout Jews. One part of this process—salting the meat to draw out and remove any blood—has led some people to think this makes the meat safer because salting may help weaken harmful bacteria. But there is no scientific proof that it does. In addition, another kosher rule prohibits immersing the meat in scalding water, which can kill bacteria and is a common practice in the chicken industry. In fact, one study of more than 200 samples of raw kosher chicken purchased at 15 locations conducted at Northern Arizona University found that it harbored up to twice as much antibiotic-resistant E. coli as conventional poultry. Dr. Doyle points out that, while these E. coli bacteria were not E. coli O157:H7, because they are antibiotic-resistant they are still a public health concern. An Israeli study found that because kosher poultry is not scalded, the chickens have to remain longer in defeathering machines, which increases the risk for contamination with Listeria, one of the top five causes of death from foodborne illness, according to the CDC.
Bottom Line: Kosher meat is possibly less safe than conventionally produced meat.
THE FARMERS MARKET DELUSION
Now that we’ve burst your balloons about sustainable and religion-sanctioned meat, here’s another bubble—farmers markets. The fast growth of farmers markets has been a boon to health-conscious people seeking in-season, locally grown and often organic food. It’s important to support local agriculture. But these foods aren’t necessarily safer. They’re not always regulated, and the way food is handled and stored—from produce to meats to homemade dairy products and cider—varies greatly. Indeed, researchers at the University of Minnesota have found a statistically significant relationship between the presence of farmers markets in a community and a higher number of foodborne illness outbreaks. That’s far from conclusive, to be sure. But it’s also possible that there’s an even stronger relationship because it’s likely that these local outbreaks are small and go unreported—say a family gets sick after eating farm market products and chalks it up to a stomach bug—and the data are never recorded.
By all means, buy your meat—and produce—from farmers markets. Opt for grass-fed organic beef, not to mention organic chicken, if you can afford it, for the environmental and ethical benefits. Buy halal or kosher beef and chicken if you prefer their methods. Just don’t labor under the impression that these virtuous buying habits will protect you from foodborne illness.
For that, you still need to follow the rules—wash your hands, cutting board and utensils after handling raw meat or poultry, and make sure it is fully cooked. The USDA recommends that steak be cooked to an internal temperature of 145ºF, hamburger to 160ºF and chicken to 165ºF. To learn more, see Bottom Line’s “Is Rare Steak Safe? And Other Reader Food-Safety Questions” and “6 Things This Food-Safety Expert Won’t Eat…And One Surprising Food He Will.”