Adding to the concern, almost all of the disease-causing organisms in our 257 samples proved resistant to one or more of the antibiotics commonly used to fight them. Turkeys (and other food animals, including chickens and pigs) are given antibiotics to treat acute illness; but healthy animals may also get drugs daily in their food and water to boost their rate of weight gain and to prevent disease. Many of the drugs are similar to antibiotics important in human medicine. Among our findings: 69% of ground-turkey samples harbored enterococcus, and 60% harbored Escherichia coli. Those bugs are associated with fecal contamination.
Ground turkey labeled “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” was as likely to harbor bacteria as products without those claims. (After all, even meat from organic birds can pick up bacteria during slaughter or processing.) The good news is that bacteria on those products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
From barn to burger. Conventionally raised turkeys are fed mostly corn and soybean meal plus a vitamin and mineral supplement. They usually get FDA-approved antibiotics that may be given in low doses without a prescription. Before the birds are killed, antibiotics must be withdrawn to ensure that residues clear from the birds’ systems.
But harm may already have been done. Although the antibiotics eventually kill off vulnerable barnyard bugs, bacteria that are immune to their effects can flourish and spread. They can exchange genetic material with other bugs, further accelerating antibiotic resistance. And bacteria on turkeys can develop resistance to similar drugs that aren’t even given to turkeys. Some bacteria that end up on ground turkey, including E. coli and staph aureus, can cause not only food poisoning but also urinary, bloodstream, and other infections.
Antibiotics aren’t allowed in turkeys labeled “organic,” “no antibiotics,” or “raised without antibiotics.” (Sick birds may be treated, but they’re then sold to nonorganic markets.) Organic birds must eat only certified organic feed and pasture, which means no genetically modified organisms; and production of those birds must not contribute to contamination of soil or water. Producers of organic and free-range turkeys must demonstrate to the Department of Agriculture that they’ve allowed birds “access to the outside,” though that phrase is not specifically defined and some birds may not venture outdoors.
Such steps are among the requirements for raising a food animal sustainably—without drugs and in a way that’s more healthful for animals and people.
Indeed, when we focused on antibiotic use, our analysis showed that bacteria on turkey labeled “no antibiotics” or “organic” were resistant to significantly fewer antibiotics than bacteria on conventional turkey. We also found much more resistance to classes of antibiotics approved for use in turkey production than to those not approved for such use. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that the FDA should ban all antibiotics in animal production except to treat illness.
To read the full report: “Consumer Reports investigation: Talking turkey. Our new tests show reasons for concern,” Consumer Reports magazine: June 2013