Still deciding whether to buy an organic turkey or a conventionally raised bird for Thanksgiving this year?

Here's one reason to consider going organic: Turkeys that carry the USDA organic seal are not given antibiotics.

About 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in industrially produced livestock. Producers generally administer the drugs to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick on crowded factory farms.

But this kind of inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals is a major factor in the widespread problem of antibiotic resistance. Resistant bacteria cause infection and illnesses that no longer respond to the drugs meant to destroy them.

How Antibiotic Use on the Farm Affects You

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made reducing inappropriate antibiotic use in people and animals a top priority because of the effect of antibiotic resistance on human health. And the World Health Organization recently issued guidelines that recommend against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals.

MORE ON ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE

When used in cattle, hogs, and poultry, the drugs can kill off weaker bacteria in the animals’ digestive tracts, leaving a few hardy survivors to multiply. Those bacteria, as well as certain antibiotic residues, are excreted in manure, which is the perfect medium for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow.

Those bacteria get on the animals’ hides and skin, and can contaminate the meat we eat when the animals are slaughtered.

And the bacteria continue to reproduce and spread resistance to other bacteria in the animal waste and can get into our environment via airborne dust blowing off of farms and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces. 

Drug-resistant bacteria can also spread from farms to humans through farmworkers who handle animals or their wastes.

The problem doesn’t just lie with the bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Once resistant bacteria are in the environment, they can mingle with other bacteria and share genetic material, which could contribute to additional antibiotic-resistant infections in hospitals and communities.

Consumer Reports testing has found that no-antibiotic and organic meats and poultry tend to carry fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria.

But these meats are not necessarily free of bacteria that can cause illness, so it is still important to take steps to protect yourself from food poisoning, such as keeping raw meat and poultry separate from other foods and cooking any turkey to 165° F.

How to Find a Better Turkey

If you want to avoid a turkey raised with antibiotics, you need to read labels carefully. Here's what to look for:

  • USDA Organic. This is one of the best guarantees a bird didn't receive antibiotics routinely. (Note that under current rules poultry that is labeled USDA Organic may have been given antibiotic injections before it hatched and until its second day of life.)
  • Raised Without Antibiotics; No Antibiotics Administered; No Antibiotics Ever. A “no antibiotics” or “raised without antibiotics” claim should be reliable but verification isn’t required. Ideally, this label would be accompanied by a USDA Processed Verified label, which means the agency has confirmed that the producer is doing what it says it is.

Three labels to be leery of: "antibiotic-free," "no antibiotic residues," and "no antibiotic growth promotants." 

“Antibiotic-free” is not a USDA approved claim, so its meaning is unclear. “No antibiotic residues” doesn’t say anything about whether the animals were fed antibiotics as they grew. (Animals who were given antibiotics must go through a federal government mandated withdrawal period, so there shouldn’t be any antibiotic residues anyway.) There could still well be antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could make you sick on the poultry, even if there aren‘t any antibiotic residues left on the meat at the time of sale.  

"No growth promoting antibiotics" is another claim to ignore. Though technically true, it has little practical meaning. Under guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, antibiotics used in food animals are no longer labeled for use for production purposes (i.e. animal growth). This means that any producer using antibiotics solely for growth promotion would be in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

But birds carrying this claim may have still been given antibiotics for disease prevention. And if the drugs continue to be widely used to prevent disease, we'll still be likely to have a problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 


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