"E. coli is in ground beef because cow manure got into your food," Klein said. "So the fact that it continues to occur means there's a failure in the industry and the USDA to prevent the problem."
Hagen said looking into doing everything the agency can to keep ground beef safe is "the most important question."
"We know we have improvements to make," she said.
"You have to recall we are dealing with a fresh product," Boyle said. "But as we have tried to comply with zero-tolerance standards, we've made enormous progress over the last 10 years."
The key to defending yourself against E. coli is in the cooking, according to Hagen.
"The safest way to ensure that your meat is properly cooked is to use a meat thermometer," Hagen said. "And while the risk is low [with a meat thermometer], the risk is not zero."
A burger should be cooked to 160 degrees, so that there is no red meat left in the center of the burger.
Instant-read meters can be purchased for a few dollars at most kitchen supply stores.
"The main reason that ground beef is a higher risk product than whole muscle cuts is a matter of surface area," the USDA warns. "When [the] product is ground the surface area is increased exponentially, and any remaining contamination on the outside of source material now has the potential to become incorporated throughout the ground product" and right into your burger or meatball meal.
Some consumers think that getting your meat ground fresh from a whole muscle cut at the supermarket is a safer option, but the USDA advises against this option. The agency reports that these whole muscle cuts are meant to be reserved for steaks and roasts and "are not generally handled the same way."
Some plants do use antimicrobial treatments and testing on these cuts just like they do for beef trim and ground beef, but processors assume that these cuts will be "prepared and consumed intact." On an intact cut of meat, any bacteria on the surface of the cut is likely killed when its grilled. The fear is that if these products are ground at the supermarket, any contaminants are ground into the product causing the meat to "take on the attendant risks of ground product."
Bottom line, the USDA does not recommend that consumers get their beef ground at the supermarket by your butcher. The USDA considers the grinding of these kinds of primal and subprimal cuts at retail to be a high risk practice -- there have been a number of recalls linked to this problem in recent years.
The safest option is to cook your burger to 160 degrees.