Industry refutes Consumer Reports' ground turkey study

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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YONKERS, NY – Industry stakeholders are taking issue with an analysis of ground turkey products by Consumer Reports, which claims to have found disease-causing, antibiotic-resistant organisms in most of the products tested.

Consumer Reports bought 257 samples of raw ground turkey meat and patties and tested them for the presence of enterococcus, E. coli, staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Among Consumer Reports' findings:

• A majority of the samples (90 percent) had one or more of the five bacteria for which they were tested.

• Bacteria on ground turkey products labeled “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” were resistant to fewer antibiotics overall than bacteria found on conventional products.

• Sixty-nine percent of ground-turkey samples tested positive enterococcus, while 60 percent of the samples were positive for E. coli.

• Three samples were contaminated with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

• Salmonella was found in 12 of the samples tested (5 percent) and two-thirds of them were multidrug resistant.

• The lab analysis 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.

“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.”

But the National Turkey Federation disputed the findings, saying Consumer Reports made alarming claims based on "an extremely small sampling" of ground turkey products.

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

For example, the two most prevalent bacteria, Enterococcus and generic E. coli, are not considered sources of foodborne illness. However, Consumer Reports found almost no prevalence of the two pathogens of public health concern — Campylobacter and Salmonella, according to the Federation.

"This is borne out by more extensive government testing, which finds almost 90 percent of all ground turkey and 97 percent of whole turkeys are Salmonella-free," NTF said in a statement. "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 Federation also said the article is misleading about the significance of its antibiotic findings. Ciprofloxacin, one of the antibiotics for which Consumer Reports tested, has not been used in poultry production for almost eight years, meaning resistance is highly unlikely to be from farm-animal use, and penicillin and cephalosporin are used infrequently in animal agriculture. Tetracycline, is used in animal agriculture, but comprises only four percent of all antibiotics prescribed by physicians.

Finally, MRSA and E. coli are ubiquitous in the environment.

"Enterococcus and generic E. coli are everywhere, and there is more than one way they can wind up on food animals," said Lisa Picard, NTF vice president of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs. "In fact, it's so common in the environment, studies have shown that generic E. coli and MRSA can even be found on about 20 percent of computer keyboards."

Betsy Booren, the American Meat Institute Foundation's chief scientist, said the Consumer Reports finding were encouraging because none of the 257 samples tested positive for Campylobacter and only five percent test positive for Salmonella, which is one-tenth the regulatory limit of 49 percent.

“When food safety issues have been linked to ground turkey, they have typically been caused by either Campylobacter or Salmonella," Booren said. Consumer Reports test results show that the food safety systems used by turkey processors are working to destroy these bacteria.”

Booren added that the US meat and poultry industry supports the judicious use of antibiotics, and that AMI, also supports efforts to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.

“While it is the industry’s goal to eliminate bacteria that can cause foodborne disease, there is simply no way to destroy all bacteria on all raw products," Booren said. "Consumers should be reassured that all bacteria, whether antibiotic resistant or not, are destroyed by thorough cooking.

“The companies that comprise the meat and poultry industry are proud to provide a wide array of safe meat and poultry choices that are produced in various ways — from conventional, to natural to organic — to satisfy the needs and preferences of our customers.”

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