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Bacteria In Turkeys

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Bacteria In Turkeys
Bacteria In Turkeys

Bacteria In Turkeys: Scanning electron micrograph image of Campylobacter jejuni.

Credit: St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London
It's that time of year in the United States when family and friends sit down to a traditional turkey dinner and give thanks. This year everyone should be thankful if they don't become ill from bacteria contaminated turkey. Officials at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) warn that food-borne microbes are a very real hazard, especially during the holiday season.

Bacteria In Turkeys

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not currently testing turkeys for harmful Campylobacter bacteria. Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of diarrhea and a leading cause of food poisoning in the United States. Other symptoms caused by the bacteria include abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, and muscle pain.

In 1999, researchers from the CSPI tested 50 fresh and frozen turkeys purchased from stores in five major U.S. cities. They found that of the 50 turkeys tested:

  • 8 turkeys (16%) were contaminated with Campylobacter
  • 28% of fresh turkeys and 4% of frozen turkeys were contaminated with Campylobacter
  • Salmonella was not found in any of the turkeys

Bacteria contamination in the turkey industry is not new. The USDA released a report in 1998 showing that in 1996 and 1997, 90% of the turkeys tested were found to contain Campylobacter and 18% contained Salmonella. Although the 1999 study showed a small improvement in the number of turkeys contaminated with harmful bacteria, the CSPI still maintained that there was definitely a need for stricter requirements on bacterial testing for turkeys. In spite of this, in November of 2003, the CSPI reported that the Department of Agriculture had "all but abandoned its program" for testing whole turkeys for Salmonella.

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

In May of 2011, the CSPI petitioned to have the USDA declare four antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella adulterants. An adulterant is a substance that is illegal for food producers to distribute or sell. The four strains petitioned to be considered adulterants were Salmonella strains Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar, and Typhimurium. In July of 2011, the USDA issued a public health alert for frozen, fresh, and ground turkey products after determining that the turkeys were contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg and linked to 77 illnesses and one death. In spite of this, the USDA has yet to declare Salmonella an adulterant or to develop food industry testing procedures that would detect the presence of antibiotic-resistant strains in food prior to distribution. Without the adulterant label, food safety agencies and producers are not legally bound to determine the presence of these microbes in food before it is packaged and shipped. There is precedence for declaring bacterial strains adulterants. In 1994, Escherichia coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant. According to the CSPI, the medical community considers antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella to be just as much a public health risk as Escherichia coli O157:H7.

The CSPI attributes the problem of antibiotic-resistant strains to the overuse of antibiotics. Industrial food producers give animals low-doses of antibiotics to promote growth and increase feed efficiency. These antibiotics ideally should be used only to treat disease. Overexposure to antibiotics allow bacteria to build up a resistance to the antibiotics. The bacteria undergo genetic changes that allow them to not only become resistant to commonly used antibiotics, but they also become less responsive to drugs in which they have not gained resistance. These resistant bacteria can then be passed on to humans through food. The bacteria can cause food-borne diseases that are difficult to treat due to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Preventative measures recommended by the CDC to reduce the risk of contamination include properly washing and drying your hands, and washing kitchen utensils and surfaces with soap and water after handling raw meat. Turkeys should be cooked thoroughly and left-overs refrigerated.

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