Consumer Reports: Safer Meat

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Hundreds of thousands of people get seriously ill each year from food poisoning. More than 5000 die. The source of the problem is often meat contaminated with bacteria. The food industry has come up with an answer — irradiated meat. The meat is treated with gamma rays or electron beams to wipe out most disease-causing bacteria. Consumer Reports investigated to see if irradiated meat is worth buying.

More and more supermarkets are now selling irradiated meat. This is irradiated ground beef. There are also irradiated frozen chicken tenders. This symbol shows the meat has been irradiated.

Shoppers have mixed feelings.

"Irradiated meat? It sounds really creepy. I've got to be honest."

"I think if there was proper handling of meat, you wouldn't need to be doing that."

"If I knew the bacteria will have been killed somehow, I would try it."

This supermarket flyer says irradiation "eliminates any bacteria that might exist in food."

And this brochure from Surebeam, the leading food irradiator, claims "you can't taste the difference."

Consumer Reports just tested both of these claims. To check for taste, testers shaped identical burgers from irradiated and regular ground beef.

Then they cooked them on identical grills. They also tested irradiated and non-irradiated chicken tenders.

Trained tasters did blind,
side-by-side comparisons of both the burgers and the chicken. They were able to pick out the irradiated meat 66 out of 72 taste tests. It had a slight but distinct off-taste and smell.

The tasters also sampled burgers served on a bun with lettuce and ketchup. Again they could pick out the irradiated meat. But testers say since the off-taste was usually so subtle you might not notice it.

In addition, Consumer Reports tested 400 packages of ground beef and chicken tenders for bacteria.

"Our tests found that irradiation generally reduces the level of bacteria in meat, but it didn't eliminate it. So if you're thinking, 'Oh, can I have a rare hamburger let's say?' The answer is: there's still a risk."

Consumer Reports says the best way to kill bacteria is to cook meat thoroughly. In fact, thorough cooking actually destroys more bacteria than irradiation.

Consumer Reports says you can't judge whether a burger is thoroughly cooked just by looking at the color. You need to use a meat thermometer. Cook ground beef to at least 160 degrees.

You can get more information on meat safety and Consumer Reports complete article on irradiated meat at consumerreports.org. Look under the tab marked "Consumer Advice."

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