How Your Turkey Purchase Can Protect Public Health

By Veronica Berger

This Thursday, the turkey industry estimates that Americans will eat over 40 million turkeys. If that number sounds high, it is–over the last quarter century, turkey consumption has nearly doubled in the U.S. If you’re among the 88 percent of Americans who will eat turkey this Thanksgiving, there may be a surprise ingredient on the menu: antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A 2013 analysis by Consumer Reports found that among samples of ground turkey purchased at retail stores, 90 percent of them contained bacteria such as E. coli and Enterococcus. To make matters worse, nearly all of the bacteria found in these samples displayed resistance to the antibiotics we rely on to treat these infections.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing threats to global health. The CDC recently estimated that in the U.S. alone, antibiotic resistance results in at least 23,000 deaths annually. Without swift action, this number will continue to rise; a recent study found that by 2050 drug-resistant bacteria could cause 10 million deaths worldwide every year.

Nearly 70 percent of the antibiotics important to human medicine sold in the U.S. are administered to livestock on industrial farms. To compensate for the unsanitary conditions on these farms, antibiotics are fed to animals preemptively, rather than to treat disease. Such misuse contributes to the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics crucial to human medicine.

This misuse of antibiotics is widespread on industrial farms, and turkey farms are no exception. Many of the top U.S. producers of turkey employ routine antibiotic use as a means of disease prevention. In a 2015 survey conducted by the Food Animal Concerns Trust, ten out of twelve of the largest U.S. turkey producers responded that they allow the use medically important antibiotics for disease prevention, a practice that can fuel drug-resistant bacteria. However, both the USDA and the FDA have found that bacteria present in retail samples of turkey meat are more resistant than bacteria found in other meats.

Luckily, consumers have an opportunity this holiday season to help protect public health. This Thanksgiving, to protect yourself and your loved ones from antibiotic resistance, look for a turkey raised without antibiotic misuse.

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