Myth: Meat Is Less Safe Today Than It Was In The Past


Meat safety can be evaluated in a number of ways. One way is by counting bacteria levels. All raw agricultural products contain bacteria, but during processing, the meat and poultry industry seeks to reduce these levels as much as possible and then urges careful handling and thorough cooking to ensure that no harmful bacteria remain when food is served.

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Federal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) document steep declines in bacteria on meat and poultry.

For example, the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in fresh ground beef declined by more than 90 percent over the last decade to approximately one-tenth of one percent of ground beef samples tested. That means that the pathogen will only be found in approximately 1 in 1000 samples.

Salmonella on fresh pork has declined by 85 percent since 2000, while Salmonella on chicken has declined by 60 percent since 2000.

An environmental pathogen called Listeria monocytogenes that can contaminate a range of protein foods has also declined markedly on ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. Between 2000 and 2009, L. monocytogenes declined more than 80 percent and now is found in less than one half of one percent of samples tested.

And all of these declines have occurred just as efforts to find harmful bacteria have increased and as the ability to find them has improved dramatically through better diagnostic technologies.

Foodborne illness trends also offer clues about the safety of the U.S. food supply. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that foodborne illnesses are declining. In particular, the CDC said that the U.S. had achieved its Healthy People 2010 public health goal of less than one E. coli O157:H7 illness per 100,000 people. 1

Notably, these declines have occurred as public health tracking of these infections has expanded significantly. In 1993, for example, almost no state tracked E. coli O157:H7 infections in people. Today, every state in the U.S. routinely monitors the incidence of these infections and reports to federal officials. Still, data show declines, which is very encouraging.

  1. CDC: U.S. Achieves Public Health Goals for E. coli O157:H7 Cases For Second Straight Year E. coli O157:H7, June 7, 2011.