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This Thanksgiving, Shop Smart: Buy a Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics

One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is all the sides.  I’m already looking forward to sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and more.  But one thing Americans aren’t looking forward to this Thanksgiving is getting their turkey with a side of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Unfortunately, practices in the conventional poultry industry are putting consumers at risk.

You may have heard of the recent outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) linked to Foster Farms chicken.  As of a November 15th CDC report, 389 people from 21 states and Puerto Rico have become ill since March 2013.

The bacteria in this outbreak are particularly dangerous:  The CDC reported that nine out of the ten patients tested were infected with bacteria that were resistant to at least one commonly prescribed antibiotic and three were resistant to multiple antibiotics.[1]  That means that when people were sickened by this particular Salmonella outbreak, they’ve faced an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure.  Of reported infections, nearly 40% of victims have required hospitalization, more than twice as many as would be expected in typical cases of Salmonella infections, according to a CDC spokesperson.

The antibiotic resistance seen in the latest Foster Farms outbreak is alarming but not surprising.

Multidrug resistance in Salmonella in chicken has increased significantly over the last decade.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sampling of meat and poultry across the United States, shows high rates of antibiotic-resistant pathogens on meat.

This year, the independent product testing organization Consumer Reports released theresults of its first-ever testing of ground turkey samples from around the country.  As I discussed here, what Consumer Reports found on conventionally produced turkey meat, where antibiotics are permitted to be used routinely, was certainly unappetizing: frequent contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Detecting these “superbugs” on turkey is a sign that turkey producers may be relying on intensive antibiotic use to raise turkeys—a practice that is likely to spread antibiotic resistant bacteria.

But there’s good news here.

Consumer Reports found that ground turkey labeled “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” was much less likely to harbor resistant bacteria than conventional turkey.  Antibiotics aren’t allowed in raising turkeys carrying these labels.  Sick birds may be treated, but they’re then sold to non-­organic markets.

Just like in human medicine, when antibiotics are misused, we risk breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  But when antibiotics are used as they were intended—sparingly, and only to treat disease—we are less likely to foster the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat production.

Unfortunately, 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the US today are used on farm animals, not humans.  The vast majority of these drugs are used on industrial farms to speed up animal growth and compensate for crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions.  This is despite warnings by leading medical and public health organizations that the routine misuse and overuse of antibiotics important to human medicine in the livestock industry spreads antibiotic resistance.  Most recently, the CDC stated: “Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”[2]

When antibiotics are used day after day to raise animals, resistant bacteria flourish and spread, making antibiotics less effective for people.  These dangerous pathogens travel off of farms and into our communities—not just on the meat itself, but also in our soil, air, and water.  Drug-resistant “superbugs” can even pass their resistant genes to other bacteria.

The effectiveness of the drugs we need when we get sick shouldn’t be squandered to compensate for better management practices in the conventional poultry industry.

This Thanksgiving, you can do your part to support farmers who are keeping antibiotics working for people by shopping smart.  By choosing USDA Organic or turkey sold under a “No Antibiotics Administered” label, consumers can reward turkey farmers who are using best practices.  Under the organic standard, meat producers are not allowed to use antibiotics, with some exceptions.  The “No antibiotics administered” or similar labels, such as “No antibiotics ever” are regulated by USDA but are not verified.  These claims are more reliable if they are coupled with a “USDA Process Verified” seal. Also consider other labels, such as “animal welfare approved” and “certified humane,” which mean that antibiotics were only used to treat sick animals.

But shoppers beware: “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal is raised.

Also be sure to handle your turkey and other meat safely.  The best place to store meat is at the bottom of your fridge, safely wrapped up, so there’s no risk of it dripping onto other foods.  It’s also good practices to keep two or more cutting boards in your kitchen.  To avoid food contamination, it’s best to have at least two color-coded cutting boards, and only use one of them for cutting raw meat.  Plastic or acrylic cutting boards are safer than wooden ones, because they are easier to clean, and less likely to harbor bacteria.  Finally, don’t just rely on a sponge and soapy water to get your cutting boards and knives clean—use either the dishwasher or sanitizing solution.

Have a happy, safe, and delicious Thanksgiving!

[1] Isolates collected from ill persons were resistant to combinations of the following antibiotics: ampicillin, chloramphenicol, gentamicin, kanamycin, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole, and tetracycline.  See October 11, 2013, Case Count Update,http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/heidelberg-10-13/.  Accessed 11/4/2013.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, p. 31

Originally published on NRDC’s Switchboard

One thought on “This Thanksgiving, Shop Smart: Buy a Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics

  1. Has “shopping smart” now been reduced to shopping for antibiotic free dead animals? I’m troubled that a site like Civil Eats, that seeks to bring greater awareness about where our food comes from, can be so blind-sighted by transparent appeals to humane, happy and healthy meat fantasies that a certain sector of the meat, dairy and egg industry prop up to manipulate those of use who care. While I don’t disagree that antibiotics used in livestock is a very urgent problem, there are at least 12 other pressing reasons, largely unknown apparently by even most conscious consumers that I assume are drawn to Civil Eats, that we highlighted in our official turkey page at http://freefromharm.org/animal-cruelty-investigation/12-reasons-you-may-never-want-eat-turkey-again/.

    Aside from the antibiotics issue, what else should we be thinking about? We say we care about sustainability and humane treatment, so let’s take a closer look at that for a moment.

    “The truth is that many of the worst cruelties inflicted on animals in factory farms are also routine practice on small, so-called humane farms. But even on farms where the animals being exploited are genuinely treated better, it’s important to recognize the inherent contradiction of the entire humane farming message.

    Humane farming is ostensibly based on the idea that it is wrong to subject farmed animals to unnecessary harm; yet, killing animals we have no need to eat constitutes the ultimate act of unnecessary harm. Decades of scientific evidence have irrefutably demonstrated that humans have no biological need to consume meat, milk or eggs. This means that unlike animals who kill other animals for food, humans with access to plant-based foods have a choice. Animals who kill other animals for food do so from necessity, in order to survive; while many humans consume animals simply for pleasure — because they like the taste. But as is the case with any act of violence, there is a profound moral difference between killing from necessity and killing for pleasure. When we have plentiful access to plant-based foods, and a choice between sparing life or taking it — there is nothing remotely “humane” about inflicting violence and death on others just because we like the taste of their flesh and secretions.

    So-called humane farmers maintain that an animal’s interest in not suffering matters because he is capable of suffering, and does not deserve to suffer unnecessarily (for trivial reasons). Yet these same people actively reject the fact that an animal’s interest in not dying matters for the same reasons: because he is capable of future existence, and does not deserve to die unnecessarily (for trivial reasons of profit and pleasure.) To accept that an animal’s interest in not being harmed matters is to accept that an animal’s interest in not being killed matters, because death is a form of harm; it is the ultimate form of harm beyond which there is no possible hope of recovery.

    Whatever grounds we use to establish that an animal’s interest in not suffering matters morally, are the same grounds which make an animal’s interest in not dying matter morally; the two interests are inseparable, and if one interest counts morally then they both do.

    When it comes to giving thanks for the goodness and blessings in our lives, the most fitting way to demonstrate our gratitude would be to extend kindness and mercy to all beings, rather than to celebrate life by brutalizing individuals who also cherished living, and dearly wished to go on existing.” — Ashley Capps