Food Safety: General Information

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Choosing Safer Beef to Eat

A beef-eater's chances of contracting the human form of "mad cow disease," called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are incredibly small in the United States. Despite a decade of searching by health authorities, only one case has been found so far here, a young Florida woman who probably became infected while growing up in England during the height of the mad cow epidemic there.
If you eat beef, you can lower your risk even further by choosing the beef products that the best scientific evidence suggests are safer to consume. These are the cuts that are likely to be free from nervous system tissue (such as brain, spinal cord, and nerve endings), which is the most infectious part of a cow with the disease.
Unfortunately, you can not lower your risk by cooking beef more thoroughly, because the prions that cause "mad cow disease" and vCJD, unlike bacteria and viruses, are not destroyed by heat.
No known risk:
  • Boneless beef muscle cuts that contain no nervous system tissue. These include boneless steaks, chops, and roasts and ground beef that you grind yourself or see ground from boneless beef muscle.
  • Beef products from grass-fed and organic cattle. (These cattle should not have been exposed to any animal products in their feed.)
  • Milk and dairy products.
A minuscule risk:
  • Bone-in cuts have a very slight possibility of containing nervous system tissue. These include T-bone steaks, porterhouse steaks, prime rib with bone, beef ribs, chuck blade roast and loin (if they contain bone), and bone-in roasts such as standing rib roast, shank roast, and bone-in pot roast.
Potentially risky:
  • Meat products that might contain brain, spinal cord, or central nervous system tissue. These include cow brains, head cheese, neck bones, cheek meat, and ox-tail from cattle.
  • Products that contain beef extracted by "advanced meat recovery" (AMR) machines that squeeze out the last bits of meat from cow carcasses. A 2002 government survey found that one in three samples of this reclaimed meat was contaminated with spinal cord and other central nervous system tissue. AMR beef may be used in some hot dogs, taco fillings, pizza toppings, sausages, and beef jerky made from ground or chopped meat. Manufacturers are not required to identify AMR beef on food labels.