Consumer Reports has released the results of a study that found that more than half of ground turkey is contaminated with so-called "superbugs" -- antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The report comes on the heels of data released two weeks ago by the Environmental Working Group, which found an even higher level of contamination in ground turkey -- over 80 percent -- as well as a more than 50 percent contamination level in ground beef.
Furthermore CR's study found that more than 90 percent of ground turkey (purchased at retail stores nationwide) contained at least one of five strains of bacteria, including fecal bacteria and types that cause food poisoning, such as salmonella and staphylococcus aureus. "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," the group writes in its report.
Turkeys and other "food animals" such as pigs and chickens raised in mass-production facilities are often given low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and speed growth, CR explains. This broad usage leads to the bacteria mutating to become resistant to the antibiotics and thus turning into "superbugs," a public health issue that affects everyone, vegetarians included. Superbugs can cause not only food poisoning, but skin, urinary and blood infections.
Among CR's disturbing findings: Sixty-nine percent of ground turkey samples harbored enterococcus, and 60 percent harbored E. coli. Those bugs are associated with fecal contamination and food poisoning. About 80 percent of the enterococcus bacteria were resistant to three or more groups of closely related antibiotics, as were more than half of the E. coli.
Alarmingly, ground turkey labeled "no antibiotics," "organic," or "raised without antibiotics" was just as likely to harbor bacteria as products without those claims. However, the bacteria on those products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
In 2011, Cargill Value Added Meats Retail recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey -- among the largest recalls of poultry meat in U.S. history -- due to possible contamination with a resistant strain of salmonella Heidelberg. In all, 136 people fell ill during that outbreak, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one of those victims died.
In the wake of that recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service required all ground-poultry processors to review and update their safety procedures, paying special attention to equipment sanitation. CR says the agency told them it also plans to conduct a risk assessment of salmonella and campylobacter (another food-poisoning bacterium) in ground turkey products.
Sounds like a whole lot of wrist-slapping.
According to the latest Food and Drug Administration data, about 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year are purchased for use in farm animals. That's about four times more than what doctors prescribe to people.
Democratic New York Rep. Louise Slaughter (yes, really) has authored legislation that would restrict the use of antibiotics in food animals and eight classes of antibiotics for human use only. "We need to take action to confront this growing public health crisis before routine infections like strep throat become fatal," she said in a statement.
If you think cooking your meat will solve the problem, think again: CR says, "Although the bacteria we found are killed by thorough cooking, they can produce toxins that may not be destroyed by heat." And freezing won't kill the bacteria, either. They don't call them superbugs for nothing!
The group recommends that consumers buy turkey labeled "organic" or "no antibiotics," especially if it also has a "USDA Process Verified" label; cook ground turkey to at least 165° F, checking with a meat thermometer; and wash their hands and all surfaces after handling ground turkey.
Or, you could just never, ever eat ground turkey again.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook, and follow Samantha Bonar at @samanthabonar.