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 labeled organic are raised without antibiotics, and the overuse of those drugs in raising farm animals is causing big problems in humans.

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

But this kind of inappropriate use of antibiotics in farmed animals is a major factor in the widespread problem of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria that cause infection or illness 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 a top priority. Doctors are worried, too. Ninety percent of physicians in a Consumer Reports poll said they are troubled by the meat industry's use of antibiotics on healthy animals and its effect on human health.

When used in farm animals, 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 if the waste is not well-managed. 

Drug-resistant bacteria can also spread from farms to humans through airborne dust blowing off farms and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces.

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 bacteria overall and fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria.

But these meats are not bacteria-free, 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 an Organic 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/No Antibiotics. This is one of the best guarantees a bird didn't receive antibiotics. (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.
  • Animal Welfare Approved. Poultry with this label has been raised under healthy conditions that don't include administration of antibiotics. (Birds may only be given antibiotics if they are sick or injured. Non-therapeutic use of antibiotics isn't allowed.)

Three labels to be leery of: "antibiotic free," "no antibiotic residues," and "no antibiotic growth promotants." Those are all unproved claims.

"No growth promoting antibiotics" is another claim to ignore. Though technically true, it has little practical meaning. All producers should be phasing out growth-promoting antibiotics by 2017 anyway.

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. 

Visit Consumer Reports' 2016 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.