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Did Consumer Reports get it right or wrong about beef?

Hitting newstands last week, Consumer Reports magazine's article “How Safe is Your Beef,” tells shoppers its testing suggests your ground beef is full of harmful bacteria, that ground beef coming from animals raised in the normal beef-production system is more heavily contaminated than beef raised "more sustainably", and that sustainable beef is less likely to be contaminated with germs that can make you sick with a disease that doesn't respond to antibiotic treatment.

Sympathetic media headline writers pronounced, "Your ground beef is full of poop."

For its investigation, Consumer Reports purchased 300 packages of conventionally and sustainably produced ground beef from grocery, big-box and natural food stores in 26 cities across the country. It then tested for five common bacteria: Clostridium perfringens, E. coli (including O157 and six other strains that produce dangerous poisons), Enterococcus, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus.

The highlights, according to the magazine:

  • All 458 pounds of beef tested contained bacteria that "signified fecal contamination"--that is, Enterococcus or E. coli of the non-toxic kind.
  • Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually.
  • Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick.

And the take-away lesson, according to the consumer-advocacy publication? Despite its relatively higher cost, beef from cattle that are raised sustainably—that is, beef labeled without antibiotics, organic, or grass-fed—is worth the extra money. Grass-fed beef, according to Consumer Reports, is less likely to harbor "superbugs," or bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics.

But a closer look at the full report, available here, raises some serious questions about those conclusions:

Sampling? Collecting, shipping to a lab and sampling 458 pounds of ground beef from across the country is no small task, but Consumer Reports' sample size represents less than a rounding error on the nearly 26 billion pounds of beef U.S. farmers grow each year. As a result, Consumer Reports' conclusions that conventionally raised samples have a higher incidence of contamination than sustainably produced samples does not pass the significance test. The relatively small differences between the rates when placed in context within the the small sample size means Consumer Reports reported no statistical significance between samples for any of the germs tested. "We did not design the study to make statistical comparisons at this level," a spokesman for Consumer Reports told Farmer Goes to Market. In layman's terms, that means if you repeated the very same tests tomorrow, using similar samples from the same outlets with the same techniques, you'd be just as likely to find the results reversed. Other, better designed experiments have found precisely that result: no benefit from organic or antibiotic-free in protecting against either contamination or antibiotic resistance.

Fecal contamination? Headlines notwithstanding, what Consumer Reports' contract lab tested for and found was not fecal contamination, but bacteria that are typically used as "signal organisms" for fecal contamination. E.coli and Enterococcus are often used as an indirect indicator that something may have been contaminated by feces, particularly in environmental testing. But that's not the same as finding feces. Both E. coli and Enterococcus are so pervasive in the environment that, even though they may be common inhabitants of the intestine, they are also generally everywhere else, and thus don't indicate the actual presence of feces.

Contamination--everywhere? Some media got the results closer to the unfortunate reality when they reported "your ground beef is probably contaminated by bacteria." Granted, it may be a difficult conversation to have with germophobic shoppers, but it points out an important reality: The world is not sterile. Because Consumer Reports used sensitive genetic tests that look for and flag only the presence of the genetic material indicating presence of specific bacteria--without saying anything about the amount of those bacteria that are present--you shouldn't be surprised many of the tests popped up positive, in both sets of samples. Bacteria are everywhere in quantities ranging from minute to massive, particularly the Enterococcus species, including not only meat--conventional or "sustainable"--but produce, your shopping carts, the drink dispenser in your deli, the handles on your shopping baskets, elevator buttons, food slicers, carrying trays, belt transporters, food display areascell phones and your hands.

"Superbugs," really? Consumer Reports did find a "marginally significant" difference between samples from conventional ground beef vs. sustainable ground beef when it tested those bacteria to see if they could resist typical antibiotics. They found 18 percent of the beef samples from conventionally raised beef contained bacteria that resisted at least three antibiotics, while only 9 percent of the sustainable samples did likewise. But to leap from that finding to announcing any ground beef contains "dangerous superbugs" is inaccurate, at best. Under any acceptable definition in the medical community, a bacterial species is considered a superbug only if few or no antibiotics remain that can successfully treat them. In this case, that's not true, particularly when looking at Enterococcus, a bacteria that simply doesn't cause foodborne disease. It reflects a common confusion about antibiotic resistance in food and farm animals. You can't talk about antibiotic resistance as a general problem; the only meaningful discussion looks at the resistance of a specific bacteria against a specific antibiotic. Consumer Report's own tests showed nine in 10 of the resistant samples were resistant to only one to three drugs, or weren't resistant at all.

Preconceived outcome? The ground-beef research was conducted by the publication’s advocacy arm, the Consumers Union, and it was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, no stranger itself to criticism that it shapes research questions in the food and farm arena to fit a particular policy agenda. The research report takes up just four pages inside a 54-page document criticizing a wide range of issues surrounding the U.S. beef production system, from animal welfare to environmental complaints.

Bird flu epidemic has slowed, but it's not gone

The epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which has now caused the death of more than 48 million birds, has slowed, as USDA reports no new outbreaks in the last 30 days. However, that reprieve may be only temporary, as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told Congress in a hearing last week the agency is preparing for the disease's return in the fall.

As of mid-June, the last date any incident had been reported nationwide, highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses had been detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in 15 states, involving 223 premises and affecting more than 48 million birds, resulting in death due to infection or depopulation as part of the control effort. In Nebraska, the state ag department reported last week it had completed testing on flocks near the farms in the state where the virus had been confirmed, in Dakota, Dixon, Wayne and Thurston counties. About 3.8 million birds have been affected in Nebraska.

Just as is the case with human flu, because the influenza virus does not survive easily in hot weather, recent cases of bird flu have waned. However, veterinary health officials are concerned the disease will return this fall for either of two reasons:

  • Cooler and wetter weather in fall will present conditions in which the virus grows and spreads.
  • Migration of wild birds will seasonally increase. Wild migratory waterfowl and shorebirds carry and spread the avian influenza virus globally, so their natural increase in movement in fall will increase the risk for transmitting the viruses to domestic poultry within their natural flyways.

Ag Secretary Vilsack told the House Ag Committee USDA is beefing up its plans to respond to a fall increase in avian influenza by improving containment strategies, encouraging development of a possible commercially available vaccine against the disease, exploring methods to efficiently destroy and dispose of the millions of birds that could become infected, evaluating whether and how to pay farmers for those losses and determining how to quickly repopulate lost flocks. He said the agency considers 500 simultaneous outbreaks to be the worst-case scenario.

No reported human infections have resulted from the current outbreak of bird flu in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the viruses circulating in the country pose low risk to people.

Map of avian flu outbreaks


Species breakdown of bird flu

Why consumers are primed to fear food technology

Over the long history of food technological improvements, writes Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk in a recent issue of the journal Annual Reviews in Resource Economics, consumers and citizens have tended to celebrate, not denigrate, the results. From the discovery of vitamins in 1905 to improvements in rail and truck that moved food better from farm to table, from canning to refrigeration, all those industrial improvements were met with enthusiasm by upper- and middle-class consumers who could be better fed at relatively lower prices as a result.

Today, those same consumers seem to have turned on the technological hand that feeds them, Lusk notes, even to the point of forgoing obvious benefits that are the fruits of that technology. What's happened to change society's attitude? Lusk and his fellow researchers review the scientific literature to make a few educated generalizations:

Risk/benefit analysis has become subjective. Or perhaps it always was, and we've only come to fully recognize that reality. But Lusk notes the old economic model in which consumers and society coldly weighed the benefits of new technology against its risks seems to have broken down in the case of food. People may still weigh the risks, but they do so often blinded to scientific reality by intuition, guesswork and buzz-words.

Complexity necessitates shortcuts. Today's food and farming technology has become so complex, the consumer-behavior research argues, that the average consumer is incapable of either understanding it or of investing the time and effort necessary to think about it rationally. As a result, they substitute emotion, belief and guesswork, often provided by third parties like activists and media and colored by the culture through which they view it.

Consumers apply risk assessments inconsistently. Even in applying those shortcuts to understand relative risks and benefits of technology, current psychological research shows people are wildly scattershot in how they apply that process. Key trigger aspects, like risks that naturally invoke dread because they are uncontrollable, involuntary and potentially catastrophic, can lead them to apply fuzzy math when calculating risk, until a technology that seems completely benign in the cool light of science becomes unacceptably frightening in their hearts (think the very real hazards of organic cigarettes vs. the imagined ones of GMO soy milk, for instance).

Symbolism matters. Even if a new food technology is harmless or low-risk, it often today becomes suspect because it stands for something bigger and scarier. Like a nuclear accident that results in little or no death or sickness but still frightens the public into a harsh anti-technology response, technology like GMO farming can serve as symbol reminding consumers they have little to no control over their food, a similiarly frightening vision.

Any of the research's theories about why consumers distrust food tech could be applied equally well to any new technology, Lusk writes. But they are aimed particularly at food technology today, he believes, because humans have been "hard-wired" through evolutionary development to be skeptical of new foods. "When one is living in an environment where eating an unusual berry or mushroom can kill, nature rewards caution," he writes. For future researchers--and those who apply that research to produce and sell high-tech food--it will be important to better study people's beliefs and how they evolve, how to better communicate risk and benefit within those beliefs and cultural lenses, how sensory input impacts beliefs-based food decisions, and how stated aversion to food technology really translates into buying decisions.

Why farmers use pesticides

From news reports on the possible link between farm pesticides and the mysterious disappearance of bees to the continual publicity machine hyping Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen pesticide guide for shoppers, your customers are flooded with assumptions about the use--and potential risks--of pesticides in food production. If the issue of farm pesticide use is so pressing, why do farmers continue to do that?

  • First things first, understand the broad term "pesticides" encompasses a huge variety of products that farmers generally more typically call "crop-protection" and "pest-control" tools, from weed killers to bug killers to animal-parasite controls to fungus-control products; even rat poison is considered a pesticide. Those products range from relatively harmless compounds like natural soaps and mineral oils to potent chemical poisons. (Indeed, some natural pesticides are used even on organic crops and animals.)
  • With that said, why do farmers use them? In all fairness, what the critics say is true, to an extent: Pesticides are used because they're often the most economical method to control the disease organisms, weeds and insect pests that attack farm crops. Farmers spend billions, literally, on pesticides annually, and the direct dollar return on that investment has been estimated to be from $3 to $5 for every $1 spent. But, in equal fairness, it's not all about crass commercialism, either: It's been estimated that food crops must compete with 30,000 species of weeds, 3,000 species of worms and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects, not to mention countless diseases, according to Canada's crop chemical manufacturers' association. In many circumstances, modern pesticide choices are not only the safest way to control those pests--they are the only way. Before the "green revolution" of the mid 20th century, crop protection tools usually included heavily labor intensive mechanical removal of weeds, a few synthetic organic chemicals, and dangerous toxic inorganic materials, including lead and arsenic. Today's arsenal of an estimated 2 billion pounds of chemical pesticides used around the world annually are highly targeted and regulated products that have been heavily researched to attack specific pests with specific doses through a known biological mechanism, and their availability and use is heavily regulated on farms. Herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides reduce crop losses both before and after harvest, and increase crop yields.
  • Because they are the most economical means to protect crops, that economic benefit transfers directly to your food shoppers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates between 20 percent and 40 percent of the world's potential crop production is already lost annually--even with the use of pesticides--because of  weeds, pests and diseases. Even after harvest, crop protection products used in stored products prolong the viable life of produce, prevent huge post-harvest losses from pests and diseases and protect food so it is safe to eat. Croplife Canada estimates these crop losses would double if existing pesticide uses were abandoned, significantly lowering food supplies and raising food prices. It's difficult to put an exact dollar figure on the importance of pesticides to making sure enough food is available at affordable prices, but together with fertilizers, improved hybrid seeds, and mechanization, pesticide technology helped increase U.S. farm productivity about 250 percent from the 1940s to 1996.
  • Pesticides also directly help improve both animal and human health by preventing disease outbreaks through the control of rodent, insect and parasite populations and by disinfecting premises like barns, food-handling and manufacturing facilities.

Organic and climate change: A lot of hot air?

Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before: Blindly following organic food companies onto thin marketing ice by repeating questionable health claims risks the grocer's reputation. In response, critics of modern food technology point to organic as a cure for the environmental pollution caused by modern agriculture, including increasing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

But how well does that claim stand up to scrutiny?

University of Oregon environmental sociology doctoral student Julius McGee tested the relationship between the recent growth in organic agricultural production and greenhouse gas emission that could be traced specifically to agriculture. His study, in the June 2015 issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is one of the first large-scale empirical analyses of certified organic farming and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In it, McGee offers the surprising and contrarian conclusion that not only has organic farming not helped reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, it has in fact increased climate change. He believes the rise of certified organic farming has increased both the total amount of greenhouse gas emitted from agriculture and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per acre of farmland. In addition, he argues that some organic crops--tomatoes, for example--actually produce more greenhouse gases than their conventional counterparts when produced on a similar scale.

How can this be?

McGee calls it a classic example of the "displacement paradox." Rather than replace high-input consumer consumption that may contribute to global warming, organic production simply gives consumers another outlet for purchasing. Organic farming as an alternative to conventional agriculture does little to reduce the consequences of farming practices overall, and organic farming fails to earn its marketing claim as a ‘‘more sustainable’’ form of agricultural, because a link has yet to be established between organic farming and carbon banking that helps reduce levels of greenhouse gas.

"What these findings ultimately suggest is that organic farming is not working as a counterforce to greenhouse gas emissions stimulated by agricultural production," McGee concludes.

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