In Consumer Reports' recent tests on ground beef safety, our results showed that all the types of ground beef below were less likely to contain bacteria that can make you sick as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria compared with the conventional ground beef in supermarkets. But even among these, some types of are better than others. Here's what to look for when shopping for ground beef.
Producers must provide the Department of Agriculture with paperwork showing that no antibiotics were used during the animal's life, but independent verification of those claims is not required. Beef with these labels can be fed grain, and there are no standards for humane treatment of the animals. Reliable terms are "no antibiotics administered" and "raised without antibiotics." If the package also says "USDA Processed Verified," a no antibiotics claim is more trustworthy. But beware of labels such as "no antibiotics used for growth promotion," which can still mean that antibiotics were used.
The USDA requires that beef labeled "grass-fed" or "100 percent grass-fed" come from animals that have never been given grain and have access to pasture during the grazing season. Though the producer must provide written documentation and a signed affidavit, there is no required independent verification of the label. USDA grass-fed standards allow for antibiotic use, so look for grass-fed beef that also carries a no antibiotic claim. USDA Never Ever 3 seal is ideal because it guarantees that there are no antibiotics as well as no growth promotants (such as hormones) and no animal byproducts in the feed.
Cattle are fed organic feed (no pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, or genetically engineered ingredients). They are not given antibiotics, hormones, or other drugs. Animals must be given access to pasture for most of their lives, but feedlots and grain feeding during their last few months are allowed.
The animals are never given grain and have continuous access to pasture or a grass-based forage when the weather does not allow for pasture access. Antibiotics and growth hormones are prohibited. The Association verifies those practices. Pesticides and herbicides are allowed on the pastures the animals feed on, and they can also be fed genetically engineered alfalfa.
With this combination of labels, you get meat from cattle that have not been fed grain and eat only organically grown grass and forage. Antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs are prohibited. If the package also has the Animal Welfare Approved seal, the Certified Humane seal, or the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5 or 5+ seal, animal welfare standards also apply.
Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.