AN activist group blasted turkey growers two weeks ago after finding certain kinds of bacteria in ground turkey purchased at grocery stores.
The group, Consumer Reports, which makes recommendations on everything from automobiles to washing machines, has added food activism to its résumé and advocates for limited, therapeutic-only use of antibiotics in food animals.
Consumer Reports said its workers purchased 257 packages of ground turkey from retail stores across the country and tested the samples at its laboratories.
It reported that:
* 69% of the samples had enterococcus, and 60% harbored Escherichia coli.
* Three of the samples were contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Consumer Reports said "almost all" of the bacteria "proved resistant to one or more of the antibiotics commonly used to fight them."
It reported that it tested samples from both conventionally produced turkeys that "may" be given antibiotics daily in their feed and water to boost gain and from turkeys that were not fed antibiotics.
It said it found that ground turkey from both kinds of turkeys was likely to harbor bacteria, although ground turkey from turkeys that were not fed antibiotics was less likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Consumer Reports cautioned that the practice of providing food animals with daily accessibility to antibiotics is creating "superbugs" and urged the Food & Drug Administration to prohibit "all antibiotics in animal production except to treat illness."
The American Meat Institute (AMI) and the National Turkey Federation (NTF) both disputed the Consumer Reports report.
First, NTF noted that the group raised "alarming claims" from an extremely small number of samples. (There are more than 36,500 supermarkets in the U.S., most of which merchandise ground turkey, according to the Food Marketing Institute.)
Second, NTF said the two most prevalent bacteria found in the samples — enterococcus and the generic E. coli — are not considered sources of foodborne illness.
By contrast, NTF noted that the two pathogens of greatest public health concern — campylobacter and salmonella — were hardly prevalent in the samples: 0% of the samples from conventionally raised turkeys and 5% for turkeys not fed antibiotics.
Far more extensive government testing has shown that 90% of ground turkey and 97% of whole turkeys are salmonella free, NTF said.
Third, NTF said Consumer Reports was misleading about its findings of antibiotic resistance, pointing out that one of the antibiotics tested for resistance — ciprofloxacin — has not been used in poultry production for eight years, two other antibiotics — cephalosporin and penicillin — are used infrequently in animal production and a fourth — tetracycline — is an antibiotic that doctors largely do not prescribe in human medicine.
Accordingly, NTF said antibiotic resistance "is highly unlikely" to come from the use of these classes of antibiotics in farm animals.
Finally, NTF noted that the testing found three samples that contained MRSA, but Consumer Reports failed to explain that MRSA and generic E. coli bacteria are everywhere in the environment — present on most things people touch and even on people's bodies.
AMI said while Consumer Reports chose to focus on the bacteria its laboratories found, "the more important story" is that the pathogens of greatest public health significance — campylobacter and salmonella — either weren't found or were found at remarkably low levels.
This is very encouraging, AMI Foundation chief scientist Betsy Booren said. The testing actually demonstrated that the turkey industry's food safety systems "are working to destroy these bacteria."
AMI also cited a statement by FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) last month that the issue of antibiotic resistance is "complex," adding that it is "an oversimplification to conclude that resistance in any bacterium is problematic for human health (because) some bacteria are naturally resistant to certain drugs."
CVM continued that "describing bacteria that are resistant to one, or even a few, dugs as 'superbugs' is inappropriate," according to AMI.
Booren said meat producers support the judicious use of antibiotics, and AMI "supports efforts now underway to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion."
She said there is no way to destroy all bacteria on all raw meat products, but consumers should understand that thoroughly cooking meat — to 165 degrees F for ground meat — destroys any bacteria on the product.
Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has released a report ranking what it calls "the riskiest" meat and poultry products.
The rankings were assigned based on data from foodborne illnesses over the last 12 years — 1,700 outbreaks and 33,000 cases of illnesses — and from the likelihood of hospitalizations from those illnesses.
Based on this, CSPI concluded that the riskiest products are chicken and ground beef, followed by other beef cuts and turkey. Deli meat, pork and roast beef were medium risk, while chicken nuggets, ham and sausage were the lowest risk.
"Top 10 lists are great entertainment but lousy public policy," Kansas State University food safety specialist Doug Powell wrote on his blog at www.barfblog.com.
He called the CSPI rankings "a gimmick" that distracts from the big picture that all foods carry some risk. All food — not just meat but produce — should be handled and prepared properly, he said.
Indeed, Powell noted that while CSPI focused on meat and poultry, the biggest source of foodborne illness over the last decade has been produce, which consumers often eat raw and often without first washing it or discarding the outer leaves or skin.
The chicken industry takes very seriously any human illness attributed to its products, noted Dr. Ashley Peterson, vice president for science and technology at the National Chicken Council.
She said companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in science and technology to improve the safety of chicken products, and "continuous inspection and testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proven the long-term success of these interventions."
Peterson agreed with Powell that consumers need to be sure to properly handle and prepare their food, including chicken, and that most foodborne illnesses over the last several years have been associated with lettuce, sprouts, melons and other fresh produce as well as fresh fruit.
AMI Foundation president James Hodges said had CSPI conducted a broader examination of the total food supply, it would have "delivered a more meaningful examination of food safety risk and would have shown that" foodborne illnesses associated with beef, chicken and seafood are declining sharply.
U.S. meat and poultry companies produce 90 billion lb. of meat and poultry products a year, he said, and "99.99% of these are consumed safely."