Burger Risk: Bacterial Contamination Rampant in Test of Ground Beef

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By Allegra Abramo

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said illnesses attributable to contaminated ground beef had declined 10 percent from 2013 to 2014. That figure applies to all food products regulated by the USDA.

Like your burger medium-rare? A new report on bacterial contamination in ground beef by Consumer Reports might move you to the well-done camp.

In its report published Monday, Consumer Reports discovered E. coli or other bacteria consistent with fecal contamination in all 300 packages of ground beef that it tested. Ten to 20 percent of samples, which were purchased across the country, were also contaminated with other bacteria that can cause illness.

The investigation also found more bacteria in ground beef from conventionally raised cattle – animals given antibiotics and fattened on feedlots – compared to more sustainably raised grass-fed or antibiotic-free beef.

More than 80 percent of conventional beef harbored at least two types of bacteria, compared to less than 60 percent of sustainably raised beef. And twice as many samples of conventional beef, 18 percent, tested positive for “superbugs” – bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics – compared to the more sustainable varieties.

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The majority of the 4.6 billion pounds of beef – half of it ground – Americans buy each year is conventionally produced.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply, told NBC News that none of the E. coli found by Consumer Reports was the toxin-producing variety responsible for outbreaks of illness.

The USDA added that measures to improve food safety, including a “zero-tolerance policy for six dangerous strains of E. coli, better procedures for detecting the source of outbreaks and improved laboratory testing” have led to a 10 percent drop in illnesses attributed to food products regulated by the agency from 2013 to 2014.

Food safety experts recommend cooking beef to 160 degrees to kill bacteria that can make you ill and making sure raw meat does not contaminate other foods.

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