The June 2013 issue of Consumer Reports includes a study that was conducted comparing antibiotic resistance rates in turkey raised on conventional farms versus antibiotic free farms. The results found that there were more antibiotic resistant bacteria found in turkey raised in farms which used antibiotics; however, interpret these results with caution!
The most important point about this report for consumers is to understand that there is nothing alarming or surprising about these results. The presence of bacteria on raw meat originating from the birds environment has long been recognized. This is the reason that every package of raw meat or poultry comes with clear labels about the need to properly handle and cook the product.
The fact that some of those bacteria are resistant to certain antibiotics is also not alarming or surprising. Many bacteria are naturally resistant to certain antibiotics, regardless of previous use. This is the reason that sick individuals need to be seen by a doctor to get an antibiotic to which the bacteria causing the infection are known to be susceptible.
Consumer Reports also reported that more resistant bacteria were recovered from the meat without an organic label. Note that the sample size of their study is relatively small. They sampled 257 samples from 21 different states and 27 different store brands. Since there is a sparse amount of data for each state and store brand, the statistical power of this study is relatively low. Without a large enough sample size, it is difficult to determine the strength of the association between antibiotic usage and the resistance found in ground turkey.
As pointed out last week by FDA, users of scientific data need to be sure they carefully understand the finer points of microbiology and epidemiology. The bacterium that showed the highest resistance levels, Enterococcus, “is not considered to be a foodborne pathogen.”
[I]t is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as “superbugs” if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics. This is especially misleading when speaking of bacteria that do not cause foodborne disease and have natural resistances, such as Enterococcus.
Although conventionally raised turkey showed higher levels of resistance, we have no specific data as to whether or not these farms actually used antibiotics for “production purposes.” Even if they did, FDA has evaluated the public health risk of antibiotics commonly used in poultry feed. The reported risk of streptogramin resistant Enterococcus faecium was 7 in 1 billion to 13 in ten million in the general U.S. population, and 61 in 1 billion to 1.1 in 1 million in hospitalized populations.
Along with the negligible results from this risk assessment, the main reason that risk is negligible is that correct cooking and handling will eradicate resistant and susceptible bacteria. As Consumer Reports has noted, “the bacteria that we found were killed by thorough cooking.” If you take the proper precautions to avoid cross contamination and cook your turkey thoroughly, you can safely enjoy your next turkey meal.