A lengthy analysis that ranked the riskiest meat categories was released this week, drawing criticism from industry groups and professionals who question the tactics and motive of the group that conducted the study.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is a self-described “consumer advocacy organization” that aims to provide “consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.”
Their report, “Risky Meat: A Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety,” made headlines on most national media web sites, newspapers and broadcast outlets this week with an analysis that ranked the 12 riskiest meat and poultry categories. The risks were assigned based on outbreak reports and the likelihood of hospitalizations associated with the pathogens most commonly reported in those foods. The risk levels were determined using information from 12 years and 1,700 outbreaks and reviewing 33,000 cases of foodborne illnesses.
According to CSPI, risk levels show ground beef and chicken were rated the highest risk, followed by other cuts of beef, steak and turkey. Barbecue, deli meats, pork and roast beef received a medium risk ranking, and the meats said to be least risky were chicken nuggets, ham and sausage.
CSPI’s analysis is interesting, but a larger question is whether the information is “useful” for consumers’ “health and well-being.” That’s because the incidence of foodborne illness has declined in recent years.
“Top-10 lists are great entertainment, but lousy public policy,” Kansas State University professor of food safety Doug Powell wrote on his daily blog, barfblog.com.
Powell told Rachael Rettner of My Health News Daily he believes the “report was a gimmick” that distracts people from the big picture that all foods come with risks.
“To my mind, all food is risky and should be treated with care,” Powell said. He says it’s important “to treat all foods, not just meat, but produce – everything – as a potential source of dangerous microorganisms.”
Despite the headline of the CSPI report condemning meat and poultry, Powell says, “Over the last decade, the biggest source of foodborne illness has been produce, which consumers often eat raw. Consumers should use a thermometer to tell when their food has reached the proper internal temperature. They should thoroughly wash all produce and discard vegetable peels.”
The American Meat Institute also criticized the CSPI report, and AMI Foundation President James Hodges said in a statement, “A broader examination of the total food supply could have delivered a more meaningful examination of food safety risk from our normal diets and would have shown that we have a meat and poultry supply that delivers consistently safe eating experiences. U.S. meat and poultry companies produce 90 billion pounds of meat and poultry products a year and 99.99 percent of these are consumed safely.”
AMI noted that seafood, poultry and beef showed the sharpest decline in the number of reported outbreaks in the study period.
“We do agree with CSPI’s perspective that better food attribution data is needed to understand the causes of foodborne illnesses and potential strategies for improvement,” Hodges says. “While we are always seeking to do better, our industry's food safety performance reflects commitment and continuous improvement. Consumers should continue to enjoy the meat and poultry products they normally choose and should continue to follow the safe handling instructions provided on all packages."