How Serious Is E-Coli Risk From Hamburger/Raw Milk, And Is My Clever Plan Clever?

Various food faddist friends of mine swear by their organic raw (unpasteurized) milk and their rare to raw organic ground beef, in both cases obtained from local cooperatives.

I’ve always minimized e coli fears generally on the rationale that it’s really only remotely dangerous for the young/old/immunocompromised, which ain’t me. And (mainly from the raw cheese debate, which gets pretty passionate among gourmands) I’d bought into the general proposition that serious illness from raw milk was vanishingly rare. I’m on the fence as to the alleged affirmative taste and health (probiotic, etc. etc.) benefits of uncooked meat/dairy, as I’ve neither eaten much or seen much research, but I always figured that the downside was probably overcautiously overplayed.

Then I came across this website, which hailing as it does from a plaintiffs’ lawyer who sues food processing companies, obviously is not to be taken without a grain of salt.

This guy basically says you’d be an idiot to touch ANY hamburger or raw milk, and provides horror stories about death destruction and mutilation, including among healthy adults, from e coli in burgers or raw milk. Without having looked through too much, I can’t dismiss the data he cites.

So first question: just how risky is it to eat a rare burger or raw milk? How flawed is my smug supposition that my stalwart, youngish immune system will beat the Hell out of any bacteria that do slip through before I get much more than a bellyache (that’s almost certainly over-sanguine, but am I really running a meaningful risk of paralysis, necrosis, etc.?).

Second, what about this: I buy some of these kits, run each new batch of raw milk/meat through this culture, and if it’s cool after 24 hours, enjoy some wholesome if slightly-less-fresh tasty goodness?
Problem solved?

The risk in eating a “rare” burger is gonna vary depending on whether it harbours the E. coli O157 bacteria (toxigenic E. Coli) or not. So, in a way, you’re really asking, “what’s the risk that a given batch of ground beef is contaminated by toxigenic E. coli”. And that I don’t know.

But, regarding your statement/question:

Youth is most certainly not a good protector against the development of the most dreaded complication, i.e. hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Kids are, by far, at highest risk of getting it and account for about 90 percent of cases.

For people in the 15 to 19 age group, about two percent of toxigenic E. coli infections lead to HUS. About five percent of them will die, and more will need kidney dialysis for life.

The problem with raw milk is that cows are animals. Animals are inherently messy. They don’t care about human standards of hygiene. Cow nipples can be dirty or infected easily unless absolutely terrific care is taken.

I don’t doubt that most farmers who sell most raw milk know cows, care about animals and their customers, and do everything they can to prevent disease. Despite that, the history of raw milk is one long litany of outbreaks because cows are inherently messy animals. The more cows you have the larger the risk becomes that something gets missed. That’s why “model farms” for raw milk lost out to pasteurization by the 1920s. Raw milk is an almost literal cottage industry and can’t be scaled up.

That’s also why it’s inherently impossible to talk about the odds for raw milk. As with any handcrafted product, quality is dependent on the craftsperson.

I know more about raw milk than I do about hamburg, but the basic notion is the same. If you trust the individual supplier, then the results are likely to be good. Without that personalized trust, you should take far more care.

I’ve been buying meat from local organic farms and it is unquestionably tastier than regular supermarket meat. I always buy it frozen, though, never fresh.

And KarlGauss is correct that any E. coli bug is more than a match for feeble you.

The short answer: risk is minimal (though hard to quantify), and the fears about bacterial infection have been drastically overplayed. It’s really a question of liability. Of course, public health officials recognize that there is an increased risk in the consumption of unpasteurized animal products, and therefore recommend against their consumption.

It is an established fact that France, a nation that has an affinity for unpasteurized cheeses, has significantly more deaths attributed to food poisonings than does the United States, something on the order of hundreds of deaths IIRC.

I am not trying to persuade you eat unpasteurized animal products or not, but I’d like to second what Exapno Mapcase said; if you want to drink raw milk or eat raw cheeses, you should cultivate a relationship with a particular supplier/producer so you can develop trust in their ability to use proper hygiene.

I wonder if you would get an awful lot of false positives. E-coli is pretty ubiquitous (we all have it in our gut). As another poster mentioned, it’s a **particular **variety of E-coli that is nasty. Testing for all coliform bacteria is fine when you don’t expect any to be there (because of pasteurization, sterilization, etc.), but in this case you aren’t trying to get rid of all the bacteria before testing.