Is there a better harbinger of good times and warm weather than the smell of burgers on the grill? Plus, burgers are economical and the original low-prep dinner. What could be simpler than shaping patties and slapping them on the backyard Weber?
The only complicated part is picking out a ground beef we can all feel good about.
Some of the Issues with Ground Beef
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but ground beef is a leading cause of food poisoning. Ground beef is especially vulnerable to causing illness because bacteria — including the dangerous E. coli — typically gets heated into oblivion when it's hanging out on the outside of other cuts, like steaks and roasts. But it's mixed deeply into ground beef, including the center of that burger you might prefer much rarer than the 160 degrees the USDA suggests.
For the record, I love burgers — from greasy diner specials to high-end concoctions slathered in esoteric ingredients — but my sober education about ground beef began about nine years ago when The New York Times ran a pretty tough story about where ground beef comes from. Shortly after, I remember turning over a one-pound pre-sealed plastic packet of organic beef at one of my favorite stores. The label said that the meat within "may" have come from "up to" three different countries. Nope.
Quick fun fact: According to the USDA, the terms hamburger and ground beef are not interchangeable. From their website: "Beef fat may be added to 'hamburger,' but not 'ground beef.' A maximum of 30% fat is allowed in either hamburger or ground beef. Both hamburger and ground beef can have seasonings, but no water, phosphates, extenders, or binders added."
Instantly, I became a lot picker about where I was buying my ground beef. My go-to source is a local market that promises never to sell beef that has been given hormones, and grinds their own meat every day in house. When that is not possible, I go to Whole Foods.
Why Whole Foods Is the Best National Store for Ground Beef
I go by this exhaustive 2015 report from Consumer Reports, where they tested 458 pounds of ground beef from all sorts of stores for bacteria. The author, Andrea Rock says, "Our findings show that more sustainable can mean safer meat." They defined "sustainable" on a scale starting with meat raised without hormones and leading up to the safest (grass-fed organic beef), which, for a whole variety of reasons including a longer time to maturation, is more expensive than conventionally raised beef. And while Consumer Reports does not recommend any particular store, Whole Foods ticks most of the boxes for safer beef.
Here are the four reasons Whole Foods is my top pick for national stores when it comes to buying ground beef.
- Consumer Reports says their report showed that "sustainable" meat tested for fewer harmful bacteria and E. coli, and as a baseline, Whole Foods promises to sell nothing that has been treated with hormones.
- Experts estimate that the average mass-marketed pound of ground beef can contain meat from hundreds of cows, exponentially expanding your chances of getting a teeny tiny piece of contaminated beef. At Whole Foods, the in-house butchers are custom-grinding beef daily, cutting this risk way down.
- Consumer Reports rates grass-fed organic beef the safest to eat, and you are pretty much guaranteed to find it in any Whole Foods nationwide. According to their corporate office it is consistently a "top-seller" across the country.
- When you buy ground beef from the butcher case at Whole Foods, they wrap it in butcher paper, cutting down on the amount of plastic and Styrofoam used in this purchase and making me feel a little less guilty about eating beef.
Where do you buy your ground beef?