A Consumer Reports study estimating that some 90% of raw ground turkey contains at least one of five harmful strains of bacteria was quickly dismissed by the National Turkey Federation Tuesday, which called the report "alarmist."
The study tested 257 samples of raw ground turkey products for enterococcus, E. coli, staphylococcus aureus, salmonella and campylobacter. The products were purchased from stores in 21 states and include both national and store brands.
Of the samples tested, 69% had enterococcus bacteria present and 60% tested positive for presence of E. coli. Salmonella was also found in 5% of the samples tested. On three samples, staphylococcus aureus was detected.
Of the bacteria found, Consumer Reports said the staphylococcus bacteria were methicillin-resistant; two-thirds of salmonella bacteria found were multi-drug resistant, and about 80% of the enterococcus bacteria were resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics, as were more than half of the E. coli bacteria found.
Consumer Reports said that overall, bacteria on ground turkey products labeled "no antibiotics," "organic," or "raised without antibiotics" were resistant to fewer antibiotics than bacteria found on conventional products. The group said this finding shows that there is a relationship between the use of antibiotics in animal production and increased antibiotic resistance on ground turkey.
Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of the Food Safety and Sustainability group at Consumer Reports, said in a press statement that "antibiotics fed to turkeys are creating resistance to antibiotics used in human medicine."
"Humans don't consume antibiotics every day to prevent disease and neither should healthy animals," he said. "Prudent use of antibiotics should be required to stem the public health crisis generated from the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics."
But the National Turkey Federation is countering the findings of the study by challenging its methodology, explaining that it makes "a number of alarming claims based on an extremely small sampling of ground turkey products."
The group said Consumer Reports is misleading about the significance of its findings, noting that one of the antibiotics the group tested bacteria against – ciprofloxacin – has not been used in poultry production for eight years.
Additionally, NTF said, of three other antibiotics tested for resistance, penicillin and cephalosporin are used infrequently in animal agriculture and tetracycline is used in animal ag, but only comprises 4% of antibiotics prescribed for humans.
As for concern about the bacteria findings alone, NTF said Consumer Reports does not highlight that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider enterococcus and generic E. coli to be sources of foodborne illness.
Further, the study found low prevalence of two other illness-causing bacteria, campylobacter and salmonella. Five percent of the samples contained salmonella, while no samples tested positive for campylobacter – "extremely encouraging" news, according to the American Meat Institute.
"When food safety issues have been linked to ground turkey, they have typically been caused by either Campylobacter or Salmonella," said Betsy Booren, AMI Foundation chief scientist. "Consumer Reports test results show that the food safety systems used by turkey processors are working to destroy these bacteria."
AMI said aside from the promising findings of the bacteria study, the antibiotic information should be put in context. The group highlighted a New York Times letter from the director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine which noted, "' Antibiotic resistance is a serious and complex issue. It is an oversimplification to conclude that resistance in any bacterium is problematic for human health. Some bacteria are naturally resistant to certain drugs…describing bacteria that are resistant to one, or even a few, drugs as 'superbugs' is inappropriate. Rather, 'superbugs' are pathogens that can cause severe disease and are very difficult to treat.'"
Consumer Reports has previously campaigned through its public policy arm, Consumers Union, for grocery stores to sell only meat raised without the use of antibiotics. The webpage connected to Consumer Reports' latest turkey study also urges Americans to contact legislators about passing PATMA, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.