by Marion Nestle
Jan 16 2012

The latest in meat safety: another form of zapping?

Bacterial contamination of meat is an ongoing problem and everyone wishes for an easy fix—one that does not require meat producers and packers to prevent contamination.

Irradiation works, but raises feasibility and other concerns.

How about electrocution?

Food Production Daily reports that hitting meat with electrical current reduces toxic E. coli O157:H7 on meat surfaces by 2 log units.

The research report says researchers inoculated meat with the bacteria and then applied electrical current.  But by inoculation they must mean just on the surface, because they only counted surface bacteria.

Surface bacteria, alas, are not the problem.  Searing meat effectively kills surface bacteria.   Bacteria in the interior (of hamburger, for example) survive unless the meat is well cooked.

And 2 log units is unlikely to be good enough for bacteria that cause harm at low doses, as this kind does.  The FDA requires a 5 log reduction for fresh juices, for example.

I wish researchers would apply their talents to figuring out how to keep toxic bacteria from getting into and onto animals in the first place.  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about designing techno-fixes to deal with contaminated meat.


  • Margeretrc

    There is a way to keep toxic bacteria from getting into/onto beef in the first place. It’s called pasturing. Pastured cows aren’t crowded (so they are less likely to get contaminated by bacteria on other cows) and are less likely to breed the toxic bacteria in the first place because they are eating what they evolved to eat: grass. Cows fed corn develop a more acidic environment in their rumen and that is more conducive to the growth of toxic E. coli bacteria. The bacteria are everywhere–there is no avoiding them. Thus it’s important to prevent the conditions that promote their appearance/growth in our food. Again, it is important for those who can afford to to vote with our pocketbooks and support those raising their beef responsibly and sustainably on pastures. Avoiding toxic bacteria is only one of many health benefits of pastured beef!

  • This is why I simply do not eat meat. ever.

  • Margeretrc

    I eat meat. I just don’t eat industrially raised meat–at least not often.

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  • Beth

    Hmm. If pastured cows don’t have toxic bacteria, then why do wild deer shed E. coli O157:H7? Naturally raised, organic, etc. doesn’t matter. Cook ground beef to 160F, use a thermometer and enjoy juicy burgers.

  • mister worms

    I agree with Margeretrc. We’re not going to have sterile meat – that’s not feasible nor do I think it’s even desirable. But we can reduce the risk of contamination with pathogenic bacteria with sane farming practices.

    So meat will be more expensive. As it should be. Putting a larger dent in the wallet is one way to be more mindful about the quality and quantity of what we’re consuming. Who cares if beef is $2.99/lb when it is nutritionally inferior to the $7.99/lb pastured equivalent?

    We’ve really lost sight of the purpose of eating in the first place if quantity/cost is always the #1 consideration. Perhaps, this argument wouldn’t hold true if our poorest people were wasting away from a lack of caloric content. But that’s not the case. We have plenty of calories to go around but little nutrient value to show for it.