Salmonella Strain In Turkey Recall Resists Antibiotics

Food giant Cargill is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey due to suspected contamination with a strain of salmonella that's resistant to antibiotics. With dozens of people reported ill — and one death — this certainly isn't the biggest foodborne illness outbreak. But it's forcing debate on the common yet controversial practice of dosing farm animals with daily antibiotics.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Cargill's recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey is reopening the debate on the common yet controversial practice of giving farm animals routine doses of antibiotics.

One death has been tied to the contaminated meat, and at least 77 people have been sickened. It is certainly not the largest outbreak of food-borne illness, but in this instance the strain of salmonella that is making people sick is resistant to several antibiotics.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Farmers who raise livestock and poultry dispense nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year. That's a heck of a lot more than doctors prescribe to people, nearly four times as much.

So why are farm-raised animals given so much medicine?

Dr. GAIL HANSEN (Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming): Animals are given antibiotics for a number of reasons, including to get them to grow faster.

AUBREY: To get them to grow faster, so it has nothing to do with fighting infection?

Dr. HANSEN: Right. These are given to perfectly healthy animals to get them to grow faster, to convert their food more efficiently so that they get to market faster.

AUBREY: Gail Hansen is a veterinarian and a public health expert. She works for the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. She says in instances of bacterial infection, antibiotics are clearly effective for livestock and farm animals. But the current practice of routinely adding low doses of antibiotics to animal feed, she says, is creating a problem. The bacteria that cause disease are becoming resistant to antibiotics

Dr. HANSEN: When we give antibiotics to animals to get them to grow, we're giving them at very low doses, and that's how you set up bacteria becoming resistant to the antibiotic. There's not enough of the antibiotic to kill off the organisms, enough to prime the pump, so to speak, so the bacteria learns how to become resistant to the antibiotic that's being used.

AUBREY: And this could become a problem for us. Hansen says, the very strain of salmonella called Heidelberg, which has made people sick in this outbreak and led to the recall of ground turkey meat, is resistant to three different antibiotics.

Dr. HANSEN: One of them is ampicillin, one of them streptomycin and one is tetracycline. All of those are antibiotics that a physician would likely take off the shelf to treat for disease. None of those three will work.

AUBREY: There are still alternatives that doctors can use. But it's an example of the problem. Antibiotic resistance didn't arise all of a sudden. For years, critics have been pushing for reform. There are two big government agencies involved. The Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate the use of antibiotics in farm animals. And they have developed a guidance policy. It's still in draft form. It basically says that using antibiotics to get healthy animals to grow faster should not be done.

And this past May, the watch-dog group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates food products. Currently salmonella is not considered an adulterant in food, which means contaminated products can't be recalled until they actually cause illness.

And CSPI's Caroline Smith DeWaal says that's crazy. She says the agency needs to classify Heidelberg and three other antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella as adulterants.

Ms. CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL (Director of Food Safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest): This means that the industry and the government would engage in more testing and hopefully it would result in earlier recalls before there are outbreaks or certainly earlier in the outbreak.

AUBREY: The ground turkey recall is one of the largest in history. And the National Turkey Federation says they'll keep working with federal agencies on antibiotic use and food testing.

But Sherrie Rosenblatt, who is vice president of the federation, says people should understand that antibiotic use is necessary.

Ms. SHERRIE ROSENBLATT (National Turkey Federation): Antibiotics is a great way for the industry to ensure that the food supply is highest quality, most nutritious, safest and most affordable in the world.

AUBREY: She says one strategy to prevent antibiotic resistance is to have animals and people taking different antibiotics.

As for the voluntary ground turkey recall, Cargill says it has already identified enhancements to its procedures to ensure safe food.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: