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Consumer Reports Beef Report

INTRODUCTION: Beef is a staple of the American diet, and in 2014 consumption was more than 50 pounds per capita. Although steaks top the list for popularity, ground beef, especially in the form of hamburgers, is also a favorite. In order to meet the high demand for beef, more than 2 million head of cattle are slaughtered per month in the U.S., and additional beef is imported.

In addition to being a popular food, beef— and particularly ground beef—is also a notable vehicle for foodborne illness. Bacteria in meat can cause sickness ranging from simple cases of food poisoning to more severe illnesses that can result in organ failure or even death. In addition, bacteria, like those found on beef, can be associated with infections in other parts of the body. Handling and cooking beef properly can help reduce the risk of illness, but more fully preventing foodborne disease requires addressing how animals are raised and processed. The basis for those practices is documented in this report for conventional beef, for beef that comes with production claims that in reality add little value compared with conventional beef, and for beef that is more sustainably produced.

In conventional beef production, cattle spend the first portion of their lives out on range or pasture, usually foraging grasses, then finish their lives in confined feedlots where they are fed increasing quantities of concentrated grain to accelerate their weight gain and get them to market sooner. Grains aren’t the only item used to increase growth; cattle can also be fed other things such as candy and animal waste, and they can be given drugs like antibiotics, beta-agonists, and hormones.2 In addition, antibiotics may be used to prevent or treat diseases that result from the conditions in which the animals are raised. The daily use of antibiotics and other drugs in healthy animals is unsustainable and props up a system where hygiene and space requirements are secondary— if they exist at all.

Fortunately, there are more sustainable ways to raise cattle for beef, and many options exist for consumers looking to support these sustainable systems. Cattle raised on pasture with grass-based diets live healthier and better lives, which result in better outcomes for the planet and healthier meat for consumers. All organic, many grassfed, and some other animal-welfare systems don’t rely on regular doses of drugs such as antibiotics. Unlike their confined feedlot counterparts, those alternative systems don’t contribute significantly to the development of antibiotic resistance and show that there are economically feasible ways to produce beef without exacerbating that major, global public health problem. For example, Consumer Reports’ tests show lower overall bacterial prevalence and resistance in more sustainably produced beef compared with conventionally produced beef.

Sustainable beef production is not only viable but also something consumers are demanding. In 2014, Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationally representative telephone survey that found that consumers are interested in buying food produced using methods that are environmentally conscious and socially responsible.3 Eighty-nine percent of U.S. adults surveyed think that it is important to protect the environment from chemicals such as pesticides when purchasing food, 78 percent feel that meat production methods should reduce antibiotic use, and 80 percent think that purchasing meat from animals that had good living conditions is important.

This report presents the results of Consumer Reports’ testing of conventional and more sustainably produced ground beef samples purchased at retail for bacteria and antibiotic resistance, along with a discussion of conventional and alternative practices for producing cattle for ground beef, and a detailed rating and review of which production label claims on ground beef are meaningful and which aren’t. The discussion of our testing results along with our label certification reviews will serve as a guide for readers to make better and more sustainable choices.