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Experts recommend you thoroughly cook meat products to avoid food-borne illnesses. Maskot/Getty Images
  • A study by Consumer Reports concludes that salmonella can frequently be found in packages of ground chicken, beef, pork, and turkey.
  • Experts say ground meat is more susceptible to food-borne illnesses because of the way it is prepared.
  • They recommend that you cook meat products thoroughly and store them safely to avoid illness.

Firing up the barbecue this summer may produce more than just a tasty burger. It could also result in foodborne illness.

A study by Consumer Reports found nearly a third of packages of ground chicken contained salmonella while packages of ground beef, pork, and turkey also contained harmful bacteria.

“The prevalence of salmonella found in this investigation was higher than is commonly found when [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] does preventive monitoring. Given the fact that salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne-related hospitalizations and deaths, this is of concern. For consumers, it increases the importance of practicing food safety practices,” Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, the chair of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of North Florida, told Healthline.

The findings of the Consumer Reports investigation also showed that every strain of salmonella identified in packages of ground chicken was resistant to at least one type of antibiotic.

Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., a senior clinical dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, said although the results of the investigation are concerning, they aren’t entirely surprising.

“The way we raise the vast majority of chickens/hens in this country in over-crowded, enclosed quarters significantly increases the risk that any one of them (or more) will harbor/be contaminated with salmonella and/or other bacteria that are becoming resistant to more antibiotics,” Hunnes told Healthline.

“Similar to chickens/hens, beef and dairy cattle are also often raised in crowded and close-confinement where conditions are ripe for spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria among the herd and having meat that is contaminated with it,” she added. “More than two-thirds of antibiotic use in the U.S. occurs on factory farms that raise chicken/hens, and other livestock, including beef and dairy cows.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), salmonella is responsible for more than 1.3 million infections every year. More than 400 people die due to salmonella every year and 26,500 people are hospitalized.

Food is the main source of salmonella illness. As well as chicken, salmonella can also be found in vegetables, eggs, fruit, pork, and nut butter.

Salmonella, as well as other forms of foodborne illness, are more common in the warmer months.

“There are more cases of foodborne illnesses in the summer because the warmer temperatures cause germs and bacteria to grow,” Wright said.

Wright had these tips for keeping food safe in the summer:

  • Refrigerate perishable food within 1 hour.
  • Throw out marinades and sauces that have touched raw meat when grilling.
  • Keep mayonnaise-containing dishes in insulated coolers,
  • Use your food thermometer to make sure meats on the grill have met their correct internal temperature.

Unlike whole cuts of meat such as chicken breast or steak, ground meat is more likely to harbor foodborne illnesses.

“Ground meat is more susceptible to foodborne illness for several reasons. First, ground beef is made from the meat of multiple cows mixed together, so one lot of contaminated meat can potentially contaminate many pounds of ground meat,” Wright said.

“Second, when meat is ground up, more of its surface area is exposed to air, which increases the likelihood of it coming into contact with a potentially harmful bacteria,” she added. “For this reason, we always recommend consumers thoroughly cook ground meat and avoid rare burgers.”

E. coli is a bacteria that can be found in foods, in the environment, and in the intestines of humans and animals. Many forms of E. coli are harmless, but some strains can cause illness.

The Consumer Reports investigation found a particular strain of E.coli in a package of ground beef that is considered so dangerous the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was notified and 28,000 pounds of meat was recalled from grocery stores in seven states.

While the USDA takes a hard-line approach to avoid dangerous strains of E. coli in ground beef, the same approach isn’t taken for salmonella in chicken.

According to the Consumer Reports investigation, the USDA allows producers of poultry to have salmonella in up to 9 percent of whole chickens, 15 percent of chicken parts and 25 percent of ground chicken. If a producer exceeds those amounts they are given what is essentially a warning but are not told to stop selling the chicken.

Hunnes says this is shocking.

“I was not aware of how lenient the USDA is on allowing bacterial contamination such as this in our food supply, I’m honestly shocked and think of all the patients I teach food safety to, especially after they have an organ transplant (such as a heart transplant, kidney transplant, etc), as they are more at risk of food-borne illness and poor outcomes,” she said.

To practice food safety and avoid E.coli and other bacteria, the CDC recommends cleaning hands and surfaces often, keeping raw meats separate from other items (including when using chopping boards), cooking food to the right internal temperature and refrigerating foods promptly.

Bacteria in foods can multiply if left in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F.

But both Hunnes and Wright agree reducing meat intake this summer is a great way to not only reduce the risk of foodborne illness but also improve overall health.

“There are many health reasons to decrease meat consumption and be more plant-forward. That may look like a meatless Monday where you serve eggplant parmesan or vegetarian chili,” Wright said.

Hunnes argues that as well as being good for the individual, choosing more plant-based options will also benefit the planet.

“Reducing meat consumption is a good idea for many reasons, including contamination with bacteria/salmonella/and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s better for your health… and it’s also better for the planet/environment by reducing the amount of water your meals use, the amount of land your meals use, and the amount of emissions your meals produce,” she said.

“There are so many plant-based meat options out there now that anyone/everyone can find one that suits their taste and will likely be safer to consume,” she added.