Ground turkey is an inexpensive meat product that many deem to be a healthier alternative to ground beef. However, on April 30, Consumer Reports revealed the results of a shocking lab analysis. The organization found that more than 50% of packages of raw ground turkey meat and patties bought at retail stores nationwide tested positive for fecal bacteria. Some samples contained other germs, including salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus, two of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the United States. Overall, 90% of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which Consumer Reports tested.
Raising the concern was the finding that almost all of the disease-causing organisms in the 257 samples tested 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 infections; however, healthy animals may also receive the drugs daily in their food and water to increase their rate of weight gain and to prevent disease. Many of the drugs are similar to antibiotics given to humans. Consumer Reports note that the practice of administering antibiotics, especially prevalent at large feedlots and mass-production facilities, is promoting the growth of drug-resistant superbugs. This is a serious health concern because people sickened by those bacteria might need to try several antibiotics before one succeeds.
The analysts found that 69% of ground-turkey samples harbored enterococci, and 60% harbored Escherichia coli. Those bacteria are associated with fecal contamination. About 80% of the enterococci were resistant to three or more groups of closely related antibiotics (or classes), as were more than half of the E. coli. Three samples were contaminated with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can cause fatal infections. Surprisingly, ground turkey labeled “no antibiotics,” “organic,” or “raised without antibiotics” was as likely to harbor bacteria as products without those claims. (Even meat from organic birds can be contaminated by bacteria during slaughter or processing.) However, the good news is that bacteria on those products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Other health issues have recently occurred with ground turkey. In mid-2011, the nation’s third largest meat recall occurred; 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled after food regulators discovered a particularly nasty, and potentially fatal, strain of salmonella at the plant where it originated.
Take home message:
Turkey is basically a healthy food product. Thorough cooking can kill the bacteria. However, to decrease the risk of purchasing contaminated ground turkey, purchase organic turkey products certified to be raised without pesticides.