Turkey Federation Refutes Alarmist Food Safety Claims

US - The National Turkey Federation (NTF) strongly disputes the misleading findings of a Consumer Reports article about ground turkey, which makes a number of alarming claims based on a sample of ground turkey products.
calendar icon 1 May 2013
clock icon 9 minute read

Consumer Reports has carried out tests on ground turkey meat, finding that bacteria on turkey raised without antibiotics had significantly less antibiotic resistance than bacteria on conventional turkey. Ninety per cent of samples had one or more of the five bacteria tested.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who is campaigning over the use of antibiotics in food animals, said: ““Another study, another confirmation that we are throwing away one of the greatest achievements in medical history: the development of the antibiotic,” said Slaughter, author of legislation to restrict the use of antibiotics in food-animals and save 8 classes of antibiotics for human use only. “We need to take action to confront this growing public health crisis before routine infections like strep throat become fatal.”

She added: “It’s shameful that the FDA has abandoned its responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans in favor of protecting an industry it is supposed to be regulating,” Slaughter said. “The link between overuse of antibiotics in food-animals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food is as clear as day, yet the FDA refuses to take action.”

The US National Turkey Federation has disputed the findings.

Consumer Reports Test Results

In its first-ever lab analysis of ground turkey products, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in most of the samples it tested, many of which proved resistant to more than three antibiotic drug classes. Consumer Reports tested 257 samples purchased from stores nationwide.

"Our findings strongly suggest that there is a direct relationship between the routine use of antibiotics in animal production and increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria on ground turkey. It's very concerning that antibiotics fed to turkeys are creating resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine," said Dr Urvashi Rangan, Director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports. "Humans don't consume antibiotics every day to prevent disease and neither should healthy animals. Prudent use of antibiotics should be required to stem the public health crisis generated from the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics."

The complete report and analysis can be found in the June 2013 issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

Consumer Reports findings

Consumer Reports purchased 257 samples of raw ground turkey meat and patties, including products from major retailers and store brands, and tested them for the presence of five bacteria: enterococcus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Below are some key findings. Additional data will be available in the full report.

  • Overall, 90 per cent of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which they were tested.
  • Bacteria on ground turkey products labelled "no antibiotics," "organic" or "raised without antibiotics" were resistant to fewer antibiotics overall than bacteria found on conventional products.
  • Bacteria related to faecal contamination were found on the majority of samples. Sixty-nine per cent of ground-turkey samples harboured enterococcus and 60 per cent E. coli.
  • Three samples were contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
  • Salmonella, which is one of the top causes of foodborne illness, was found in 12 of the samples tested (five per cent) and two-thirds of them were multi-drug resistant; government studies typically find higher rates of Salmonella, at around 12 per cent. Processing plants are permitted by the government to have product contamination rates as high as 49.9 per cent.
  • Consumer Reports also found much more resistance to classes of antibiotics approved for use in healthy turkeys to promote growth and prevent disease than for those not approved for such uses.

What consumers can do

Common slip-ups while handling or cooking can put consumers at risk of illness. Although the bacteria found are killed by thorough cooking, some can produce toxins that may not be destroyed by heat, so take the following precautions:

Tips for choosing meaningful labels while shopping for turkey

  • Buy turkey labelled "organic" or "no antibiotics," especially if it also has a "USDA Process Verified" label, which means that the agency has confirmed that the producer is doing what it says.
  • Consider other labels, such as "animal welfare approved" and "certified humane," which mean that antibiotics were restricted to sick animals.
  • Be aware that "natural" meat is simply minimally processed, with no artificial ingredients or added color. It can come from an animal that ate antibiotics daily.

Tips for safer preparation and handling

  • Buy meat just before checking out, and place it in a plastic bag to prevent leaks.
  • If cooking meat within a few days, store it at 40°F or below. Otherwise, freeze it. (Note that freezing may not kill bacteria.)
  • When cooking ground turkey, use a meat thermometer to ensure it reaches the proper internal temperature of at least 165°F to kill potentially harmful bacteria.
  • Wash hands and all surfaces after handling ground turkey.
  • Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze any leftovers within two hours of cooking.

What regulators and Congress should do

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has urged the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals since the 1970s. The FDA should prohibit antibiotic use in livestock except for the treatment of veterinarian-diagnosed sick animals.

"The current FDA guidance is not adequate — it simply calls for voluntary changes by industry. This will not get the job done," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

Consumers Union believes the FDA — or Congress, if the FDA will not act — should take the following steps:

  • Phase out the use of antibiotics in livestock except for the treatment of sick animals.
  • Require drug companies and feed mills to disclose sales of antibiotics for use in food animals, broken down by drug, animal species and purpose (growth promotion, disease prevention, disease treatment).

Consumers Union further urges the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is charged with ensuring the safety of ground turkey, to do the following:

  • Reduce its current allowable level of salmonella contamination in ground turkey tests from 49 per cent, to at most 12 per cent, a standard most of the industry already meets.
  • Require strains of salmonella that have previously caused human illness, and that are also antibiotic-resistant, to be treated as adulterants.
  • Require company HACCP plans - mandated by USDA to limit contamination - to include testing for salmonella strains that may be present and identify antibiotic-resistant organisms as a hazard likely to occur.

Funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Response from US National Turkey Federation (NTF)

NTF President Joel Brandenberger, said: "Consumer Reports had the opportunity to foster a serious, thoughtful discussion about food safety, but instead it chose to sensationalize findings and mislead people."

NTF refuted numerous misleading claims, and challenges the methodology in the report, from which essentially all the "findings" are obtained. To help better educate consumers about ground turkey, here are some important facts:

  • The magazine reported high levels of certain pathogens on the samples tested, but it is important to note that the two most prevalent, enterococcus and generic E.coli are not considered sources of foodborne illness.
  • By contrast, for the two pathogens of public health concern - Campylobacter and Salmonella - the magazine found almost no prevalence (five per cent for Salmonella and zero Campylobacter). This is borne out by more extensive government testing, which finds almost 90 per cent of all ground turkey and 97 per cent of whole turkeys are Salmonella-free. While the turkey industry strives to control all bacteria on its products, it focuses primarily on those bacteria that present the greatest threat to human health.
  • The article is misleading about the significance of its antibiotic findings. One of the antibiotics for which it tested (ciprofloxacin) has not been used in poultry production for almost eight years, meaning resistance is highly unlikely to be from farm-animal use, and two other drug classes (penicillin and cephalosporin) are used infrequently in animal agriculture. The fourth drug class tested by Consumer Reports, tetracycline, is used in animal agriculture, but is a largely insignificant antibiotic in human medicine, comprising only four per cent of all antibiotics prescribed by physicians.
  • The article stated three samples contained methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureas (MRSA). Understandably, this is cause for concern, but the article fails to put MRSA and E.coli in context. These bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment, and are even present on our hands and in our bodies.

NTF Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, Lisa Picard, said: "Enterococcus and generic E.coli are everywhere, and there is more than one way they can wind up on food animals. In fact, it’s so common; studies have shown that generic E.coli and MRSA can even be found on about 20 per cent of computer keyboards."

NTF noted the last week's statement of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates antibiotic use in animals. "We believe that is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease and have natural resistances, such as Enterococcus."

The magazine’s parent company believes the FDA should ban all antibiotics in animal production except to treat illness, to which Ms Picard said: "Animals, just like people, sometimes get sick. The turkey industry judiciously uses antibiotics under strict guidelines set by federal law to restore health, and to treat and control disease. This makes good sense for the turkey’s health and lowers production costs, something very important to budget-conscious consumers.

"Proper animal health practices are an important reason the US food supply is one of the highest quality, safest, and most affordable in the world," said Ms Picard.

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