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Ground Beef Safety Tips

Food Handling Guidelines for Ground Beef Safety


Ground Beef Safety Tips
Photo © Danilo Alfaro

What kind of bacteria are there in ground beef? Are they dangerous?

Any food of animal origin can harbor bacteria. Pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, can make you ill.

It's important to note that the presence of these harmful bacteria are not related to spoilage. Meat contaminated by these pathogens can look and smell perfectly fresh. Spoilage bacteria, on the other hand — the ones that cause food to develop bad odors and so on — are generally not harmful.

Ground beef safety standards are especially stringent because ground meats have more exposed surface area, which gives bacteria more opportunities to contaminate the meat. Bacteria multiply quickly in the Food Temperature Danger Zone — between 40°F and 140°F.

To prevent bacterial growth, keep ground beef at 40°F or colder, and use it or freeze it within 2 days. Ground beef should always be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F to make sure that harmful bacteria are killed.

Why is the presence of E. coli in ground beef a problem?

E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7, a strain that produces toxins in the intestine, can infect animals and contaminate muscle meat at slaughter.

This pathogen survives refrigerator and freezer temperatures and can multiply very slowly at temperatures as low as 44°F. A very small number of these bacteria is all it takes to cause serious illness or death, especially in children. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria, however, which is why the consumption of undercooked ground beef is such a concern.

Are "hamburger" and "ground beef" the same thing?

No. According to USDA regulations, products labeled "hamburger" may have beef fat added to it, but products labeled "ground beef" may not. In either case, the product can have no more than 30% fat by weight. Both can have seasonings added, but additional water, phosphates, extenders or binders may not be used.

What's the difference between inspection and grading?

Inspection is mandatory for all meat sold in the United States, and is intended to ensure the wholesomeness of the product — that the animal wasn't sick and that the meat is clean and fit for human consumption. It makes no determination with respect to quality or tenderness, however.

Meat that has been federally inspected and passed for wholesomeness is stamped with a round purple mark. Since the mark is put on carcasses and major cuts, it might not appear on retail cuts such as roasts and steaks.

Grading, on the other hand, is a system for evaluating quality, and is entirely voluntary on the part of meat producers. So while the cost of meat inspection is borne by the taxpayers, the meat companies themselves must pay for Federal inspectors to certify the quality of their products.

Beef grades commonly sold to the public or served in foodservice include USDA Prime, Choice and Select, with a shield-shaped stamp used to indicate the assigned grading. Most ground beef is not graded.

What does the "Sell-By" date printed on the package mean?

"Sell-By" dates are a guide for retailers and are only meaningful if the meat has been properly handled. The USDA suggests cooking or freezing ground beef within 2 days of bringing it home.

How can I know for sure what's in my ground beef?

The best way to know for sure what's in your burgers, ground beef or other ground meats is to grind the meat yourself. Check out this illustrated tutorial on grinding your own meat at home.
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