Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Study Finds Antibiotic-Free Turkey Less Likely to Harbor Resistant Bacteria

Ground turkey from birds raised without antibiotics is less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional ground turkey, according to a new study published by Consumer Reports today.

The group tested 257 samples of raw ground turkey meat and patties, purchased from major retailers nationwide, for Enterococcus, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, and Campylobacter and then looked at what portion of these bacteria were resistant to antibiotics. They found high levels of bacteria overall – 90 percent of samples tested positive for one of the five – and more than half were resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics. But the bugs found in products labeled “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” were resistant to fewer antibiotics than their conventional counterparts.

According to the group, which has long lobbied for stricter regulations for antibiotics in agriculture, the study underscores the need for limiting these drugs in food animal production. The project was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also lobbies for limiting antibiotics in agriculture.

The American Meat Institute, on the other hand, said the magazine article about the study wrongly focuses on non-pathogenic bacteria and that actually the results point to “remarkably low levels” of pathogenic bacteria that threaten public health, like Salmonella and Campylobacter. AMI pointed out that the level of Salmonella positives the group found (5 percent) is one tenth the regulatory limit (49 percent) that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service allows in ground turkey products. Consumer Reports also reported that they found zero samples positive for Campylobacter.

“These findings are extremely encouraging,” said AMI Foundation chief scientist Betsy Booren. “When food safety issues have been linked to ground turkey, they have typically been caused by either Campylobacter or Salmonella. Consumer Reports test results show that the food safety systems used by turkey processors are working to destroy these bacteria.”

Urvashi Rangan, director of the food safety and sustainability group at Consumer Reports, said her team was a little surprised by the low prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter.

“It’s within the spread of what NARMS finds, but it’s on the low end,” she said, noting that Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of the organization, still strongly supports tightening the USDA standards for the two pathogens in poultry production.

(NARMS is the National Antimicrobial Monitoring Service, which is jointly run by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and USDA. The program routinely samples retail meat products to collect data antimicrobial, or antibiotic, resistance among the pathogens found on those products.)

While the tests turned up only 12 samples positive for Salmonella, four of those were resistant to at least 7, sometimes 8 antibiotics, including tetracycline, ampicillin, and streptomycin, according to Consumer Reports. One of those samples came from a package of turkey processed at Cargill plant in Arkansas that was at the center for a 36 million pound ground turkey outbreak in 2011 (the largest Class I meat recall in history) after the product was linked to a 136-person Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak. The magazine said the sample contained strain of salmonella Heidelberg that was different from the outbreak strain, but resistant to the same antibiotics.

Rangan said the study published today provides compelling evidence that restricting antibiotics to only being used to treat sick animals would, in fact, reduce antibiotic-resistance. “Because you see a statistically significant difference here – it shows you can get lower rates of resistance by reducing usage,” she said. “We don’t think antibiotics should be overused.”

While most types of E. coli and Enterococcus are not pathogenic, regulators should still be concerned about resistance among these bugs, Rangan said. “We think it’s short-sighted [to not be concerned] because resistance doesn’t stop at the pathogen. Bacteria share resistance. We think we need to take a longer view.”

In an effort to get more detailed data on the link between resistance on meat products and usage by the meat industry, Consumer Reports sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg today asking that NARMS make more data about the types of meat they sample publicly available. “We understand that as part of [NARMS], information as to whether retail samples were labeled “organic” or otherwise made claims about being “raised without antibiotics” is collected, the letter read. “It would be very valuable to analyze NARMS data in relation to those label claims.”

The letter also urged FDA to disclose more data about the livestock uses of antimicrobial drugs and to support the Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency Act. Both ideas have been ardently opposed by agricultural interests.

The one thing both the meat industry and Consumer Reports seem to agree on is that consumers can take several precautions to protect themselves against pathogenic bacteria, whether antibiotic-resistant or not. Consumers should buy meat just before checking out to keep it cool, place raw meat in a plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination, store products 40 degrees or below or freeze it, wash hands thoroughly after handling raw meat, and use a meat thermometer to cook meat to USDA- recommended temperatures.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Consumer Reports found 12 positive samples, not five. The total prevalence found was five percent.

© Food Safety News
  • Carlo Silvestr

    Interesting. Why are the referred to “agricultural interests” resistant to and opposing the disclosure of more data about the livestock uses of antimicrobial drugs? What are they hiding?