The health risks from Sunday's nationwide beef recall are minimal, according to food safety experts, despite the massive amount of meat involved in the largest such recall in U.S. history.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered California-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. to recall 143 million pounds of beef after an undercover video showed cows that were unable to walk being shoved with forklifts or dragged with chains across slaughterhouse floors.
In statements, both the USDA and the American Meat Institute say the safety violations in the leaked video have more to do with inhumane animal handling and slaughter, and less to do with the contamination of beef.
Inhumane as forklifts and chains seem, what matters for food safety is whether the cow is a "downer," or an animal that cannot walk before it's slaughtered.
"Downer cattle are not as commonly slaughtered as they used to be," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center of Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "It used to be a common practice, not anymore."
If cows can't walk, they are likely to be sick. Doyle says the USDA put stricter regulations on slaughtering downers after the late '90s outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain.
"But, I think it's inappropriate to put emphasis on BSE [mad cow disease], simply because it's so, so rare in this country," Doyle said.
However, cows that can't walk for any reason — including injury — are also more likely to contaminate meat with salmonella and E. coli, which can be transferred from the animal's waste into ground beef through unclean slaughterhouse practices.
"The animals lay in their waste, so it gets on their hide, and hide contamination is the primary reason why the carcass gets contaminated," said Doyle. "That doesn't mean the risk is incredibly higher, but this pathogen is slightly higher in downed cattle."
The USDA said it had evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cows became unable to walk after passing a health inspection.
So far, no illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef and officials said they believe the majority of it already has been consumed. The recall affects beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006.
The best way to ensure that your beef is safe, says Doyle, is to cook it properly.
"We still have to properly handle and cook raw beef," said Doyle.
Cooking beef to well-done, particularly ground beef, will kill salmonella and E. coli. Washing your hands and keeping your kitchen sanitary will reduce the risk of contaminating other food. Unfortunately, says Doyle, the brand or quality of beef can't guarantee safety.
"Organic or free-range meat is not going to be free of microorganisms," said Doyle. "E. coli and salmonella is found on organic and free-range cattle, too."
People who have an E. coli infection may have symptoms of severe stomach pain and bloody diarrhea, says Doyle. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk for developing severe symptoms and suffering kidney failure from E. coli.