Tests: Ground Turkey From Antibiotic-Free Birds Less Likely To Harbor Drug-Resistant Bacteria

Most of us know that there may be potentially harmful bacteria on the raw meat we buy, but a new study appears to show a direct link between animals that have been provided antibiotics and the presence of pathogens that are resistant to drugs.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports have just released the results of their first-ever lab test of packaged ground turkey. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tests found that 90% of packaged ground turkey and turkey patties contained at least one of five potentially harmful bacteria, including salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus. More than two-thirds of the samples came back positive for fecal bacteria like E. coli or enterococcus.

These pathogens were then tested for their resistance to the antibiotics most commonly used to combat them in the human body. CR found that around 80% of the enterococcus bacteria, and more than 50% of the E. coli, found in the turkey samples were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.

Three of the 39 samples that tested positive for staph contamination were found to be methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is known to cause fatal infections.

Perhaps most importantly, while those samples that were labeled as “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” were just as likely to harbor bacteria as products without such labels, the bacteria found on these antibiotic-free turkey samples were less likely to be resistant to antibiotics.

You can see a PDF of the drug-resistance results HERE, and a breakdown of pathogens found by company HERE.

For years, many scientists and public health advocates have called for an end to the non-medical use of antibiotics in livestock. In most cases, antibiotics are being introduced into animal feed not for the purpose of preventing infection, but for weight gain. It has been claimed that the over-use of antibiotics has given rise to so-called “super-bug” pathogens that are resistant to traditional forms of treatment.

“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.”

Among the things to consider when shopping for and preparing ground turkey:
*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.

*Know that no type of meat—whether turkey, chicken, beef, or pork—is risk free.

*Buy meat just before checking out, and place it in a plastic bag to prevent leaks.

*If you will cook meat within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it. (Note that freezing may not kill bacteria.)

*Cook ground turkey to at least 165° F. Check with a meat thermometer.

*Wash hands and all surfaces after handling ground turkey.

*Don’t return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.