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Myths regarding foodborne illness in meat defrayed by Mythcrushers

Written by Saige Albert

In the new video series Meat Mythcrushers, a project of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the top of foodborne bacteria and their relationship to animal agriculture was explored.

Kathleen Glass, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, says, “Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that produce is on the top of the list for causing foodborne illnesses.”

Causes

A recent CDC report, says NAMI, notes that 46 percent of foodborne illnesses were linked to produce and most often leafy greens. Other common sources of foodborne illness include sprouts, tomatoes, peppers and cantaloupes.

“I think people get the misinterpretation because there are a lot of recalls related to meat and poultry,” says Glass. “A lot of the same pathogens found on meat – such as Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella – can also be found in produce.”

NAMI adds, “Certainly foodborne illnesses are linked to meat and poultry products, but they’re not the only source or even the most common source. Foodborne illness is an issue across the food system that everyone is working to improve.”

CDC data shows that meat and poultry are responsible for 22 percent of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. 

Sources

When looking at sources of bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, Glass notes that many sources are prevalent. 

“These bacteria can come from agriculture, but good practices make sure there is a separation of animal agriculture so there is no run-off and irrigation water is clean,” she explains. “We still run the risk of having wild animals in our fields because we can’t control them.”

Glass adds, “Just as frequently, bacteria comes from how the produce is handled during the harvesting and packing process.”

As an example, Glass cites a recent Listeria outbreak in cantaloupes that resulted from insanitary conditions in packinghouses. 

Common causes

Norovirus is the most common cause of foodborne illness, according to CDC. The virus causes vomiting and diarrhea. 

“It accounts for well over 50 percent of the outbreaks,” Glass says. “It is important to note that most of our outbreaks are associated with food handlers rather than coming from the food itself.”

“Sick food handlers specifically caused 53 percent of the foodborne norovirus outbreaks by contaminating food and may have contributed to another 29 percent of the outbreaks,” NAMI adds. 

If a food handler has the virus on their hands, it can easily be transferred to food, contaminating the product. 

Protecting against illness

“The best weapon against foodborne illness is education and information,” NAMI emphasizes. “Relative to other nations, North America enjoys a very safe food supply.”

“Nothing in the world is risk-free,” Glass adds. “We can take insurance policies to protect against foodborne illness by handling food products safely.”

Glass also notes that the meat industry has been working to improve safety across the industry, and they have made many developments to decrease the incidence of disease. 

“The meat industry has been doing a lot of work for improved cleaning and sanitation and in validating their processes,” she says. “Along with that, temperature control is important.”

Individuals can take steps to prevent foodborne illness. Some actions that can be taken include washing produce thoroughly, and keeping meat and poultry and ready-to-eat foods separate in the kitchen. 

Meat and poultry should also be cooked thoroughly to recommended temperatures.

“In the big picture, we have made major improvements in food safety,” Glass says. “We are also looking for more improvements, and that is why we do research. We are trying to find novel processes and antimicrobial ingredients that will be useful to the industry and ultimately help improve public health.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..