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The most risky meats: Chicken and ground beef

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 9:06am  ET

MeatUSDA.jpg
Chicken and ground beef as the riskiest of meats. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Chicken and ground beef are the most popular meat and poultry products in America -- but they can also be the most dangerous.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest studied 12 years of government data on food-borne illnesses. The consumer advocacy organization says the results point to chicken and ground beef as the riskiest of meats.

"These are both items likely to be contaminated with dangerous pathogens that can make you ill," explains Sarah Klein, an attorney with the Food Safety Program at CSPI.

These dangerous pathogens include salmonella and E. coli. And the contamination can occur anywhere along the food chain, from farm to table.

"There are illnesses linked to problems at slaughter and problems in processing. But then there are also illnesses either linked to restaurants or home handling of food," Klein says.

One of the major problems with contaminated meat occurs in restaurants when cooked food is left sitting for too long under warming lights. This common occurrence accounts for roughly one-third of all the food-borne illnesses caused by meat and poultry.

Klein says the warm environment creates a breeding ground for bacteria.

"Those warming lamps are lovely to keep the food at a nice temperature for taste and quality, but, unfortunately, if they sit under those hot lamps for too long the bacteria feel like they are in a spa."

Another tip is to make sure everything is cooked thoroughly. It's also a good idea to put raw meat or poultry -- no matter how well packaged -- in the plastic bags provided at the butcher counter before tossing them into your grocery cart.

Fresh cut meats have to be treated with utmost care. While chicken and ground beef are the riskiest, turkey and steaks are just behind. Roast beef and pork are considered medium risk. Cured meats -- like sausages and ham -- are the least likely to pass along food-borne illnesses.

In response to the report, the USDA released the following statement:

"We applaud CSPI's ongoing efforts to educate consumers about food safety," says Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for Food Safety. "While we have made progress in making food safer -- including cutting E. coli O157-related illnesses in half -- we still have work to do. As Salmonella rates continue to stagnate, we look forward to CSPI's support, and the support of other groups committed to food safety, of our efforts to reduce this dangerous foodborne pathogen, including modernization of the poultry inspection system."

Similarly, the National Chicken Council responded to the report, saying that chicken is safe to eat when properly handled.

"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," says National Chicken Council Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Ashley Peterson.

The full CPSI report, as well as steps consumers can take to protect themselves from the risk of foodborne illness, is available online.

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