Is Your Self-Made Ground Beef Safe? | How to Manage Risk with In-House Ground Beef

Ground beef is versatile, delicious, relatively inexpensive and probably the most popular of all beef options. It’s a staple ingredient on just about every restaurant menu by way of meatloaf, meatballs, sauces, appetizers, hamburgers and more.

Many restaurants make their own in-house ground beef using trimmings created from cutting their own steaks and/or boxed beef primal cuts. This is also common practice in grocery stores and butcher shops. If you opt to do the same, how can you tell if your ground beef is really safe?

Bacteria 101 

People in the meat business live by this credo: Life begins at 40. 40°F is the critical temperature at which bacteria start to grow on meat.

Bacteria occur naturally everywhere around us in our environment. There are beneficial bacteria, and harmful bacteria. You’ve probably heard of probiotics, which contain beneficial types of bacteria. Much has been positively written about the so called “good” bacteria synonymous to yogurt and other like food products in recent years.

When working with ground beef there are two harmful types of bacteria of concern: Spoilage and Pathogenic.

Spoilage Bacteria are generally not harmful to humans. These are the types of bacteria that cause food to deteriorate creating bad odor, color or texture.  Many of us know that when meat smells foul we probably shouldn’t eat it. The good thing about Spoilage bacteria is it gives us detectable warning.

Pathogenic Bacteria are killers; they are very harmful to humans. These types of bacteria cause food-borne illness and cannot be seen or smelled: E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter Jejuni, Listeria Monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus Aureus. Pathogenic bacteria are often thought upon as “hidden” killers because you can’t see, smell or taste them; they give us no detectable warning signs.

Pathogen Prevention in the Food Service Industry

Ground beef production in the Foodservice Industry is done under State or USDA Inspection. Wholesale ground beef producers must take measures to reduce both spoilage and pathogenic bacteria risks associated with ground beef to ensure public safety. Industry standards are strictly adhered to and some producers will electively incorporate additional safety measures to the established guidelines.

The safety process at Buedel Fine Meats begins with all ground beef raw material undergoing N=60 sampling, an elective but robust testing process in accordance with the Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s suggested Best Practices for ground beef which includes a laboratory Certificate of Analysis. We also voluntarily employ the use of a Pathogen Intervention System for boxed beef primal cuts to further increase food safety and conduct all ground beef production in a dedicated processing room kept under 40°F.

How Good is Pathogen Prevention in Restaurant Kitchens?

Unfortunately, pathogen bacterial prevention is challenging in restaurants for a variety of reasons. Many restaurants grind their own ground beef in back of the house kitchens. Often times grinding is taking place in temperatures way over 40°F because of the close proximity to ovens, grills and fryers being used.

A high risk of cross-contamination can also occur in restaurants cramped for space where fish, chicken, pork and beef prep are sometimes  done in the same area, on the same table, and possibly with the same knives. Sometimes meat is stored in the same cooler as dairy and produce and the door is continually opening throughout the day increasing the cooler temperature to over 40°F.  Many times meat is stored near the cooler door where the highest variation of temperature occurs.

All of these critical control points introduce pathogenic risk to a restaurant operation, but they are the types of risks that can be monitored and controlled with smart care. Conversely, there are also other risks which are harder to control when making in-house ground beef from steak trimmings or boxed beef.

It is important for restaurants to know that boxed beef is not pathogen tested at the packing plant. Deadly pathogens such as, E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter Jejuni, if present, may exist on the exterior surface of the meat with no warning signs.

The only sure fire way for restaurants to kill these bacteria without pathogenic intervention, is to cook the meat to at least 160°F (well done). There is some flexibility with steaks and roasts where only the exterior surfaces need to reach 160°F, which still allows for the insides to be cooked to rare or medium.

Ground beef and burgers are quite a different story and a much greater risk. If deadly pathogens are present on the exterior surface of meat being used they will get mixed up and mixed in during the grinding process. If the ground beef or burgers then are not cooked to 160° (well done) completely through, then the possibility for customer illness occurs when pathogens are present giving you liability exposure.

How many of you or your customers order burgers well done? How many of us like our burgers a little pink on the inside? How many people do you know like to order their burgers “mooing”?

Best Practices for Safer Ground Beef

While sickness and death from pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 do not run rampant, they do occur. Keeping liability exposure to a minimum is a priority for all of us.

Here’s a checklist you can employ to reduce risk exposure and increase food safety:

  Record Accurate Information
Keep a log by vendor, including vendor establishment number pack dates, receive dates, raw material type, time used, quantity used, and any other plant-specific identification information provided. If there is an incident, your log will be helpful to trace back to the source and potentially reduce your liability.

 Store Raw Materials Properly
Place fresh beef raw material into cold storage and keep it’s temperature under 40°F.

 Employ Good Manufacturing Practices
Grind beef in an environment under 40°F. Train personnel on disease control, hygiene, and so forth. Instill sanitary operation procedures for general maintenance, cleaning, sanitizing, pest control and cross-contamination prevention.

  Use Pathogen Inhibitors                                                                                      There are USDA approved natural acid spray interventions you can use with a hand sprayer on meat prior to grinding. These sprays typically kill 99.9% of pathogens upon contact significantly reducing bacterial risks.

 Store Finished Products Correctly
Always keep fresh ground beef stored under 40°F, freeze if possible. Date stamp finished products by production date. Fresh ground beef is safest only for a few days if not vacuum sealed.

Rule of Thumb

Better safe than sorry is the way to go; grind your own beef with food safety in mind. Use best practice measures to reduce the risk of illness and liability from toxic pathogens.


From the desk of  John Cecala  Twitter @Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page

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