Ground beef and chicken are by far the riskiest meat and poultry products in the American food supply and pose the greatest likelihood of hospitalization, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Furthermore, according to the nonprofit group's analysis of more than 33,000 cases of foodborne illness connected to products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chicken nuggets, ham, and sausage pose the lowest risk of foodborne illness.

The report, Risky Meat: A Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety, ranks 12 categories of meat and poultry based on outbreak reports and the likelihood of hospitalizations associated with the pathogens most commonly reported in those foods. Ground beef and chicken are not only responsible for the largest numbers of outbreaks and cases of illnesses, but those illnesses tend to be more severe. The deadly bacterium E. coli O157:H7, for instance, was responsible for 100 outbreaks associated with ground beef in the 12-year study period. Because that pathogen is estimated to result in hospitalization in nearly half of those infected, ground beef had the highest severity index of the 12 meat and poultry categories. Ground beef is also connected to illnesses caused by Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella.

Outbreaks from ground beef and chicken are reported frequently, and all too often cause debilitating illnesses—illnesses that lead to hospitalization," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "For example, approximately a quarter of those who are sickened by Salmonella will go to the hospital. The hospitalization rate for E. coli infections is nearly 50 percent and for Listeria infections it is more than 90 percent."

Hospitalizations caused by Salmonella put chicken in the "highest risk" category alongside ground beef. Clostridium perfringens and Norovirus also cause outbreaks associated with chicken. Campylobacter bacteria are also believed to cause a large number of individual illnesses associated with chicken but rarely cause outbreaks.

"Meat and poultry producers must bear primary responsibility for keeping pathogens out of their products, but when it comes to beef, chicken, and other raw meats, restaurateurs and home cooks must treat them like hazardous materials and take steps to minimize risk," said CSPI senior food safety attorney Sarah Klein. "Care should be taken to avoid spreading germs from the meat around the kitchen, and meat thermometers should be used to ensure that ground beef, chicken, and other meats are fully cooked."

CSPI's second tier, or "high risk" category of meats includes steak and other forms of beef, but excludes roast beef, which is of medium risk. Steak is typically seared on both sides, which helps to kill surface bacteria, but E. coli O157:H7 is still a problem. (The practice of mechanically tenderizing steak with blades or needles may drive surface bacteria into the steak's interior, thereby increasing risk.) With steak and other forms of beef, Clostridium perfringens was the pathogen responsible for the greatest number of illnesses. Rounding out CSPI's high risk category is turkey. November and December are big months for turkey-associated Clostridium illnesses—indicating that holiday turkey left out on the table too long is partly to blame.

CSPI's "medium risk" category includes barbecue, deli meat, pork (excluding ham and sausage), and roast beef. Listeria monocytogenes, though not a common cause of outbreaks, is a critical concern with deli meats. That bacterium hospitalizes almost everyone (94 percent) who becomes infected, with the elderly, ill, and immune-compromised consumers being at greatest risk. CSPI's barbecue category includes beef and pork barbecue, but not chicken barbecue, and its pork category includes chops and roasts, but not ham. With both of those categories, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus aureus are the primary pathogens of concern.

Chicken nuggets, ham, and sausage make up the "low risk" category, reflecting their lower frequency and severity of illnesses. Norovirus is a common cause of infections from foods in this category, which suggests that improper food handling, such as insufficient hand-washing by restaurant workers, may be responsible for more illnesses than the foods themselves.

The National Chicken Council quickly issued a statement about the report.

"Rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken produced in the United States, and all chicken products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in order to reach consumers," said Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the NCC.

"The bottom line for consumers is that all chicken is safe to eat when properly handled and cooked," she said.  "Consumers can continue to feel confident about including chicken as a lean, low-fat and high-protein part of a healthy, balanced diet."

Peterson noted that from 2001 to 2010, the latest 10-year period for which data are available, outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens decreased by more than 40 percent, according to CSPI's own analysis.  Additionally, CSPI clearly states that the illness data they use represent only a "small fraction of likely cases," thereby biasing their data set from the start.  Scientifically, if a complete data set were used and evaluated instead of evaluating only hand-selected data, the results would be quite different. 

Over the past several years, most instances of Salmonella outbreaks have been related to melons, lettuce, salads, fruit, sprouts, tomatoes or other fresh produce, according to U.S. government data.  "That is why it is an important reminder that all raw agricultural products – whether its produce, fruit, meat or poultry – could contain bacteria that might make someone sick," Peterson said.

American Meat Institute President James H. Hodges issued a statement pointing out the 40% decrease in outbreaks related to the pathogens. He added that “a broader examination of the total food supply could have delivered a more meaningful examination of food safety risk from our normal diets and would have shown that we have a meat and poultry supply that delivers consistently safe eating experiences.

“We do agree with CSPI's perspective that better food attribution data is needed to understand the causes of foodborne illnesses and potential strategies for improvement,” he added. “While we are always seeking to do better, our industry's food safety performance reflects commitment and continuous improvement.  Consumers should continue to enjoy the meat and poultry products they normally choose and should continue to follow the safe handling instructions provided on all packages."

Sources: CPSI, AMI, NCC