Why Grocery Store Meat Might Be Making You Sick

Why Grocery Store Meat Might Be Making You Sick

Horrifying of outbreaks of foodborne illness continue here in America.  In 2018, more than 6.5 million pounds of ground beef was recalled because of salmonella contamination. 246 people were reported sick in 25 states leading to 56 hospitalizations.

Is it any surprise that the contaminated meat came from an enormous plant—one that likely processes about 200,000 pounds of beef, or more, per day—and one that was recently accused by the USDA of “egregious” and “inhumane” practices with livestock?

The honest truth is that the potential for exposure to harmful bacteria exists in all food systems—including organic vegetables and pasture-based meats. But there are some critical differences between production models that significantly changes the risk factors for foodborne illness and widespread outbreaks.

First and foremost—when food is raised in a clean environment, the likelihood that the plant or animal in that ecosystem would be exposed is greatly reduced. It’s common sense, right? Cows that live in feedlots trample around in their own feces.

Chickens in large houses crammed full of birds don’t have their bedding changed and are forced to wallow in their own waste. Animals that are rotationally grazed—regularly moved to fresh, green grass like those at Grass Roots are—live cleaner lives. As a result, there are fewer harmful bacteria on pasture-raised steers when they are taken to be processed. 

Another factor that affects the quality and cleanliness of meat is scale, not just on-farm batch size—though that obviously has an impact on animal health and welfare—but the number of animals harvested in a facility is important as well. A large-scale plant can process about 200,000 lbs of beef in a day or 800,000 chickens.

Volume alone is problematic because if the bacteria is present at an enormous plant, rates of contamination are going to be much, much higher than it would be at a facility—like those that Grass Roots owns and operates—that processes about 4,000 lbs of beef and 2,000 chickens. 

But that’s just basic math. Another risk factor at large processing facilities is the practices. Because they’re trying to move such large volumes of meat through their operation per day, they don’t tear down their equipment—that is, thoroughly clean and sanitize—until they’ve met their daily quota. Again, that means hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat moving through assembly lines that aren’t cleaned for several hours.

At Natural State Processing—the small-scale facility that handles Grass Roots chickens—all equipment is sanitized after about 2,000 chickens have been harvested. Most of the big guys wait to tear down until they’ve processed about 800,000 birds. They have machines that make it possible to cut up 140 birds per minute and that equipment doesn’t get cleaned until the end of the day. At those speeds, you can imagine the mess that is made. (Or maybe you don’t want to, and I don’t blame you.

But if you want to read more, here’s a link to an article that describes the problems of overly speedy processing rates.) Speed is problematic because it results in more contamination and less time for health inspectors to examine the products. Traditional poultry processing facilities—ones that harvest only 400,000 birds per year or less—move much slower in order to ensure a safer, cleaner process. There are only about 14 of these small-scale facilities in the country (Grass Roots’s own Natural Processing is one), which means that about 97% of all chicken processed in the U.S. comes from an industrial plant.

If you think that’s bad, here’s something that is truly shocking. (I mean, honestly, I had no idea until I started the research for this post.) Meat that is sold fresh has a certain shelf life, right? So, it’s more cost effective and efficient for processors moving large quantities of meat to get it out and onto grocery store shelves as quickly as possible.

It takes time to process test results for harmful bacteria, so—brace yourselves—most big companies selling fresh meat send it out for distribution BEFORE they know whether it is contaminated and is going to make people sick. From their perspective, it’s better to get it onto shelves and issue a recall if the meat tests positive than it is to lose the time that could be spent processing more animals and getting more meat into grocery coolers.

Grass Roots we freeze all our meats. Freezing at the peak of freshness preserves the quality of the product, and it allows us to get all bacterial test results back BEFORE our products are sent to your home. Chicken and beef are frozen immediately after packaging. The same is true for ground beef, and all other cuts of beef are dry aged—a process that not only adds flavor but is also shown to reduce instances of E.coli—and then frozen as soon as aging is complete.

So, let’s end on a positive note, shall we? It’s easy to avoid meats at higher risk for foodborne illness—buy pasture raised from farmers whose standards you trust and who use small-scale processors to do their butchering.


1. All of our animals are 100% pasture-raised and rotationally grazed.

2. We don’t use supplemental feed treated with antibiotics, which is particularly relevant given the recent study that shows 75% of bacteria on grocery store meat is resistant to antibiotics.

3. Our chicken is air chilled—unlike 97% of chicken processed in the U.S.—which means that it is never dipped in chlorine or contaminated water baths. Air chilling is also shown to reduce instances of campylobacter.

4. We freeze our meat at the peak of freshness—the best way to keep food safe until it’s ready to eat.

5. We have test results in hand before we send our products out the door—which means we can ensure that they don’t have harmful bacteria when they are sent to you.

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