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The National Turkey Federation (NTF) and the American Meat Institute (AMI) sought to set the record straight in response to a Consumer Reports article about ground turkey, which, according to the NTF “makes a number of alarming claims based on an extremely small sampling of ground turkey products.”
According to NTF president Joel Brandenberger, “Consumer Reports had the opportunity to foster a serious, thoughtful discussion about food safety, but instead it chose to sensationalize findings and mislead people.”
In an article based on its first lab analysis of ground turkey products and scheduled to run in the June 2013 issue of its magazine, Consumer Reports said that testing revealed potential disease-causing organisms, many of them resistant to antibiotics, in most of the 257 samples it bought from stores nationwide.
“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,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports, the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. “It’s very concerning that antibiotics fed to turkeys are creating resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine. 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.”
NTF refuted various claims in the article that it characterized as “misleading” and challenged the report’s methodology. Among the points raised by the organization:
- The two most prevalent pathogens found in the samples tested, Enterococcus and generic E.coli, aren’t considered sources of foodborne illness.
- For the two pathogens of public health concern -- Campylobacter and Salmonella -- Consumer Reports found almost no prevalence (5 percent for Salmonella and 0 percent for Campylobacter).
- One of the antibiotics for which Consumer Reports tested, ciprofloxacin, hasn’t been used in poultry production for nearly eight years, meaning that resistance is highly unlikely to be from farm-animal use, and two other drug classes, penicillin and cephalosporin, are used infrequently in animal agriculture. The fourth drug class tested, tetracycline, is used in animal agriculture, but is a largely insignificant antibiotic in human medicine, accounting for just 4 percent of all antibiotics prescribed by doctors.
- The article noted that three samples contained methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureas (MRSA), but failed to put MRSA and E.coli in context. These bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment, and are even present on humans’ hands and bodies.
In its response to the article, NTF referenced last week’s statement of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates antibiotic use in animals: “We believe that is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs’ if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease and have natural resistances, such as Enterococcus.”
Noting Consumer Reports’ belief that the FDA should ban all antibiotics in animal production except to treat illness, NTF VP of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Lisa Picard said: “Animals, just like people, sometimes get sick. The turkey industry judiciously uses antibiotics under strict guidelines set by federal law to restore health, and to treat and control disease. This makes good sense for the turkey’s health and lowers production costs, something very important to budget-conscious consumers. Proper animal health practices are an important reason the U.S. food supply is one of the highest quality, safest, and most affordable in the world.”
Meanwhile, AMI chose to accentuate the positive, pointing out the Consumer Reports’ microbiological testing actually revealed “a high level of turkey safety,” despite the article’s focus on the bacteria that was discovered in the samples.
“These findings are extremely encouraging,” explained 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.”
Added Booren: “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. 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.”
According to Booren, American meat and poultry suppliers are in favor of “the judicious use of antibiotics,” and AMI “supports efforts now under way to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.”