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Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director, provides his perspective on everything from animal agriculture trends that impact our food chain to food-safety related issues affecting chicken and egg production. O’Keefe has covered the poultry industry as an editor for more than a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and poultry production to comment on today’s issues.
Poultry Processing & Slaughter

Consumer Reports finds low incidence of Salmonella in ground turkey

April 30, 2013

The magazine most noted for its product reviews, Consumer Reports, conducted a nationwide sampling of ground turkey at retail and cultured the samples, testing them for the presence of Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, Enterococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. After isolating these organisms, they were tested for antibiotic resistance following the government’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

Salmonella was found to be present in only 12 of the 257 (4.7 percent) ground turkey packages sampled at retail; this result was well below the Salmonella performance standard established by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. In addition, Campylobacter was isolated from none of the 257 ground turkey packages sampled. 

The sample size of this study was not large, but the results point to the strides the turkey industry has made in reducing the incidence of the two main pathogens associated with poultry meat products, Salmonella and Campylobacter. I do have a problem with how Consumer Reports chose to share this good news with the public. The title the magazine chose for the article, which will appear in its June issue, but is online now, is “Consumer Reports investigation: Talking turkey, our new tests show reasons for concern.”

Consumer Reports chose not to focus the article on the low level of Salmonella and absence of Campylobacter in the ground turkey samples; rather, they chided the turkey industry over its use of antibiotics. The National Turkey Federation has responded to Consumer Reports’ assessment of the antibiotic resistance data. In a published statement, the Federation said, “The article is misleading about the significance of its antibiotic findings. One of the antibiotics for which it tested, ciprofloxacin, has not been used in poultry production for almost eight years, meaning resistance is highly unlikely to be from farm-animal use, and two other drug classes, penicillin and cephalosporin, are used infrequently in animal agriculture. The fourth drug class tested by Consumer Reports, tetracycline, is used in animal agriculture, but is a largely insignificant antibiotic in human medicine, comprising only four percent of all antibiotics prescribed by physicians.”

The article stated three samples contained methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, but the article fails to put the findings of both MRSA and E. coli in proper context. These organisms can be found throughout the environment. Lisa Picard, vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, National Turkey Federation, said, "Enterococcus and generic E. coli are everywhere, and there is more than one way they can wind up on food animals. In fact, it's so common in the environment; studies have shown that generic E. coli and MRSA can even be found on about 20 percent of computer keyboards."

If you are wondering why Consumer Reports chose to present what should be considered good news in a manner that the average consumer may consider to be bad news, one just had to read the disclaimer at the bottom of the article’s last page. In a footnote to the article, Consumer Reports acknowledges that “funding for this project was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Any views expressed are those of Consumer Reports and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.”

The Consumers Union, a non-governmental organization championing the cause of removal of antibiotics from food animal production for all but therapeutic uses, is acknowledged as the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, and yet they are cited as an expert source in the article. I know that in this new media world of online blogs everyone has an opinion, but isn’t Consumer Reports supposed to be above the fray, giving honest evaluations of products? Was this supposed to be a news story? If it was intended as a news story, the folks at Consumer Reports botched the headline and lead and also lost their objectivity along the way.

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