Do You Need to Go Cold Turkey on Contaminated Turkey?

Close up of bowl of ground pork
A resounding “ewwww” was heard around the country this week thanks to a Consumer Reports investigation of ground turkey. You’ve probably read that 90% of the 257 samples of ground turkey from 21 states tested positive for one or more types of bacteria, including fecal bacteria, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus.

The other bad news was that many of the bacteria were resistant to antibiotics, raising fears that the practice of giving antibiotics to turkeys (as well as other animals) is contributing to the growth of drug-resistant superbugs, which can be hazardous to human health. Get sick from a superbug and it may take several passes of different antibiotics to clear it up.

Although there’s been no recent outbreak of foodborne illness linked to turkey, the news was enough to leave consumers wondering what’s safe to eat.

“Right now, I can’t look at ground turkey without thinking ‘ew,’” says New York City writer Catherine Winters, who thought she was doing the healthy thing by eating more turkey rather than red meat. “Time to find a new lunchtime staple,” she says. “I am even rethinking my passion for turkey bacon.”

Food Revival blogger Amanda Storey, who has an 18-month-old son, is also concerned. “I just made turkey meatloaf for my entire family last weekend and even blogged about it,” she says. Now she’s wondering “Do I buy organic turkey breasts and have the butcher grind it? Or, do I just avoid it completely?”

Who’s not surprised by the news of contaminated turkey? Members of the medical community like Cindy McLain Pearman, MD, assistant professor of Family Medicine at University of Tennessee. “We’ve known for many years that chicken products are more likely to contain bacteria than not. Depending on which study you read, E. coli is present in more than half of most chicken products, salmonella in at least 70%, and campylobacter in nearly 90%,” she says. “It’s not much of a stretch to think that commercial turkey products would be much the same based on how the birds are raised, slaughtered, and processed.”

The fact is, Dr. Pearman says, birds are just messy. “They poop everywhere. And commercial birds are kept in such close quarters that they are covered in poop germs.” Still, you can decrease the number and kind of germs you’re exposed to, she says.

4 ways to reduce your chance of getting sick from contaminated turkey

1. Buy as fresh as possible If you’re buying pre-ground, buy it as fresh as possible and use it quickly, says Dr. Pearman. “Buying whole pieces and having them ground for you and then using that right away is a little safer still,” she says. Most of the germs start on the surface; grinding mixes them up inside and they increase exponentially with time, hence the use-quickly rule.

Purchase the ground turkey right before you check out, make sure it’s bagged so it won’t leak, and get it into the fridge ASAP.

2. Buy organic Most turkeys are fed antibiotics to help boost growth, which means they’re likely to have some germs that are resistant to common antibiotics, Dr. Pearman says. “This is what we should be most concerned about, and it’s something we can actually do something about.” Buy organic poultry, especially free range or free roaming, and the bird is still likely to have bacteria, but it is less likely to be antibiotic resistant bacteria, she says.

“No Antibiotics” is another label to look for, according to the Consumer Reports investigation. And a “USDA Process Verified” label means that the USDA has confirmed that the producer is doing what it says, Consumer Reports says. Organic and no-antibiotics brands in the Consumer Reports tests were: Coastal Range Organics, Eberly, Giant Eagle Nature’s Basket, Harvestland, Kosher Valley, Nature’s Place, Nature’s Promise, Nature’s Rancher, Plainville Farms, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Wild Harvest.

3. Cook with high heat The overwhelming majority of bacteria in turkey are destroyed by heat, says Dr. Pearman. So the most important precaution is to cook poultry to an internal temp of 165 degrees. “We always use a meat thermometer to be sure,” she says. Clean the thermometer thoroughly after each use.

4. Decontaminate your kitchen  “When I handle raw poultry in my kitchen, I treat it like toxic nuclear waste,” Dr. Pearman says. “Everything it touched or might have touched gets washed. Grilling outside we make sure that utensils that touched the raw chicken never touch the cooked chicken.”

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