An organic turkey on a table during Thanksgiving dinner.

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 the 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.


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How Antibiotic Use on Farms 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 has also issued guidelines that recommend against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals.

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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.

In turn, 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. According to Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst and food label expert at Consumer Reports, here's what to look for:

  • USDA Organic. This is one of the best guarantees that 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, or 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 seal, which means the agency has performed inspections to verify that the producer is doing what it says it is.

There are three labels to be leery of: "antibiotic-free," "no antibiotic residues," and "no growth promoting antibiotics." 

Both “antibiotic-free”  and “no antibiotic residues” are not claims that are approved by the USDA, so you shouldn't see them on turkey labels. (And animals that were given antibiotics must go through a federal government mandated withdrawal period, so there shouldn’t be any antibiotic residues anyway.) If you do see them, however, it doesn't necessarily mean that the birds were not given antibiotics. 

Though technically true, "no growth promoting antibiotics" 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 still have 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. 

And don't be taken in by the claims "all natural" and "raised without hormones or steroids." Neither has anything to do with whether the animals received antibiotics. On meat and poultry, "natural" just means minimally processed without any artificial ingredients. It does not mean organic or no antibiotics. And hormones and steroids are prohibited in turkey production, so a turkey that carries the claim is not necessarily a better choice than one without it.

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