Thanksgiving Guide: Finding Antibiotic-Free Turkeys

Nov. 20, 2020 — As Americans shop for their Thanksgiving turkeys, a public health advocacy group has issued a buying guide that rates brands based on their antibiotic use policies.

Of the 15 brands evaluated, eight got the green light, four a caution light, and three brands a red light, based on information about antibiotic use in the turkeys found on the companies’ websites.

Industry officials took issue with the report’s findings.

The news about antibiotic use in turkey production, overall, is encouraging, says Sydney Riess, a public health campaigns associate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a federation of state groups that advocate against threats to public health and safety. Its report, “Talking Turkey,” was released today.

But, Riess says, “We also know there is a long way to go.”

Under FDA regulations, medically important drugs that fight germs, defined as those needed to treat human disease, cannot be used in turkeys and other feed animals to promote growth but can be used to prevent disease, she says. Some public health experts say the policy should be stricter, allowing the antibiotics to be used only to treat sick animals diagnosed by a licensed vet or, in some cases, to control a verified disease outbreak. Overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, an emerging global health issue.

What the Report Found

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or U.S. PIRG, evaluated 15 popular turkey brands, studying each brand’s website to find out about its policy on antibiotic use. Using that data, it divided the companies into green, yellow, or red categories, from most ideal to least.

Green-light companies have publicly available information on their websites saying they prohibit the use of all antibiotics or the routine use of medically important antibiotics for all whole turkeys sold.

Of the 15 brands studied, eight were classified in the green category:

  • Fossil Farms
  • Koch’s
  • Murray’s
  • Nature’s Rancher
  • Norbest
  • Organic Prairie
  • Perdue
  • Plainville Farms

According to information on their websites, companies in the yellow category may offer lines of whole turkeys raised without antibiotics, or without routine use of medically important antibiotics. But the policy does not necessarily apply to all of the whole turkeys sold by that brand, based on website information, U.S. PIRG says.

Four companies are in this yellow category:

  • Butterball
  • Foster Farms
  • Jennie-O
  • Northern Pride

Companies in the red category have no or limited information about antibiotic use in whole turkeys on their website; the data there suggests they continue to use medically important antibiotics routinely to prevent disease in health animals, U.S. PIRG says.

Red category companies include:

  • Honeysuckle White
  • Shady Brook Farms
  • Signature Farms

Industry Response

Beth Breeding, a spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, an industry group, reviewed the report and responded. “National Turkey Federation members are committed to the judicious use of antibiotics in turkey production, and the industry has prioritized decreasing the need for the use of antibiotics used to treat people while maintaining our commitment to animal welfare,” she says.

Breeding says the report ”has numerous omissions and errors.” Among them, several companies mentioned were not contacted, she says.

The report is misleading and wrong, says Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson for Cargill, which sells Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms turkeys. “The mistake is that they are making these claims based solely on what is or is not published on a product website, not any actual data,” he says. His company does not use antibiotics in its turkeys in a preventive fashion (on healthy animals) and hasn’t since 2016, he says. “Nearly 50 percent of the birds sold under the Honeysuckle White brand and Shady Brook Farms brand are antibiotic-free, meaning they were never used. The Honest Turkey brand [also a Cargill brand] is 100 percent antibiotic free. No mention of that anywhere in the report.”

More on FDA Regulations, Public Health Concerns

The FDA updated its regulations about medically important antibiotic use in food-producing animals in 2017, saying these medicines may be used only in the feed or drinking water of food-producing animals with veterinary oversight and can’t be used to boost growth.

According to the CDC, each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection, and more than 35,000 die.

According to U.S. PIRG, in 2017, turkey production used nearly 18 times more medically important antibiotics than chicken per pound of meat produced.

Expert Perspective

“The report shows that there has been progress among the top fresh turkey producers in reducing overuse [of antibiotics],” says Steven Roach, food safety program director for Food Animal Concerns Trust, a nonprofit advocating for animal welfare, who reviewed the report.

“Perdue [a major producer] no longer allows routine antibiotic use, and some other major producers are marketing some turkey raised in reduced antibiotic use programs,” he says.

“The report provides a helpful tool for consumers who are looking for a turkey and want to reward companies doing the right thing on antibiotics. One challenge for consumers and consumer advocates is the lack of transparency by companies in how they are actually using antibiotics on their farms.”

Consumers can also look for specific phrases on the turkey label, such as “No antibiotics administered,” “Raised without antibiotics,” or “No antibiotics ever,” according to U.S. PIRG.

WebMD Health News

 

Sources

Sydney Riess, public health campaigns associate, U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group: “Talking Turkey: A Consumer Guide to Buying Turkey Raised Without Overusing Antibiotics.”

Steven Roach, food safety program director, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Chicago.

Beth Breeding, spokesperson, National Turkey Federation, Washington, D.C.

Daniel Sullivan, spokesperson, Cargill, Minneapolis.

CDC: “Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance (AR/AMR).”

FDA: “Antimicrobial Resistance.”

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