Turkey Meat

Consumer Reports analyzed ground turkey bought at retail stores nationwide.  More than half of the packages of raw ground turkey and patties tested positive for fecal bacteria.  Some samples harbored other germs, including salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, two of the leading causes of food-borne illness in the U.S.  Overall, 90 percent of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which we tested.

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  Before the birds are killed, antibiotics must be withdrawn to ensure that residues clear from the birds’ systems.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

What You Can Do

Common slip-ups while handling or cooking ground turkey can put you at risk of illness.  Although the bacteria we found are killed by thorough cooking, they can produce toxins that may not be destroyed by heat. 

Consumer Reports recommends taking the following precautions:
  • Buy turkey labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics,” especially if it also has a “USDA Process Verified” label, which means that the USDA 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.

  • 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.