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Talking Turkey: 9 out of 10 retail turkey samples contaminated with fecal bacteria

November 21, 2011 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 33 Comments

Ben Franklin’s tree-perching “Bird of Courage” has been transformed into a flightless butterball so top-heavy they are physically incapable of mating (necessitating artificial insemination). Turkeys are bred to grow so fast, a group of veterinary researchers concluded, “they are on the verge of structural collapse.”

Wild turkeys grow to be 8 pounds in the time turkeys raised for meat reach a slaughter weight of 28 pounds. Their skeletons cannot adequately support such weight, leading to degenerative hip disease, spontaneous fractures, and up to 20% mortality due to lameness in problem flocks. An editor at the leading U.S. agribusiness weekly wrote:

Turkeys have been bred to grow faster and heavier but their skeletons haven’t kept pace, which causes ‘cowboy legs.’ Commonly, the turkeys have problems standing…and fall and are trampled on or seek refuge under feeders, leading to bruises and downgradings as well as culled or killed birds.

Commercial breeds may outgrow their cardiovascular systems as well as their skeletons. Modern-day turkeys have been bred to grow so fast that up to 6% simply drop dead from acute heart failure at just a few months of age. It still may make good economic sense in the end, though. In fact, the sudden deaths of turkeys have been regarded by some in industry as a sign of “good flock health and fast growth rate as in the case of sudden death syndrome (flip-over) in broiler chickens.” As one producer wrote, “Aside from the stupendous rate of growth…the sign of a good meat flock is the number of birds dying from heart attacks.”

Two prominent poultry researchers offer the following economic analysis:

The situation has forced growers to make a choice. Is it more profitable to grow the biggest bird possible and have increased mortality due to heart attacks, ascites, and leg problems, or should birds be grown slower so that birds are smaller, but have fewer heart, lung and skeletal problems?…A large portion of growers’ pay is based on the pound of saleable meat produced, so simple calculations suggest that it is better to get the weight and ignore the mortality.

This raises both animal welfare and food safety concerns. The public health implications arise from a physiological trade-off between maximal muscle mass and optimal immune function. As detailed in a review I just had published in an international agriculture journal, there appears to be an inverse relationship between disease resistance and growth rates of farm animals accelerated by selective breeding or genetic engineering. This may explain why turkey products have been found to be among the most contaminated of meats.

Every year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tests the U.S. retail meat supply for the presence of fecal bacteria. When consumers think of manure in ground meat, hamburger comes to mind, but the latest survey found only 7 out of 10 samples of beef positive for E. coli, compared to more like 9 out of 10 samples of turkey, including the type blamed for human urinary tract infections. Turkey also had the highest contamination rates for Enterococcus faecalis and multidrug resistant Enteroccocus faecium. For a video on last year’s CDC report, see Fecal Bacteria Survey.

In today’s NutritionFacts.org video-of-the-day, U.S. Meat Supply Flying At Half Staph, I profile the landmark new report this year Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in U.S. Meat and Poultry that found that supermarket turkey was the meat most contaminated by staph bacteria (77% of turkey samples) and multidrug-resistant staph (79% of turkey staph), including the dreaded MRSA, the “superbug” now responsible for killing more Americans than AIDS. Turkey products also beat out other meats for contamination with Clostridium difficile, as reviewed in Toxic Megacolon Superbug.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which included a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, concluded that “The present system of producing food animals in the United States…presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health….” Tomorrow’s video-of-the-day will explore the public health implications of industrial pork production, and on Thanksgiving Eve I’ll review the latest on MRSA in U.S. Retail Meat.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: r_gnuce / Wikimedia Commons

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/BradleyRay/ Bradley Ray

    Oh WOW!! Turkey doesn’t seem so healthy now:-/

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/LisamarieDean/ Lisamarie Dean

      It never was healthy. However it’s REALLY not now, no.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/DebKimmel/ Deb Kimmel

    So where can we find a turkey that isn’t raised like this? How will we know what to look for?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/LisamarieDean/ Lisamarie Dean

      Very simple, Deb. You either go into a Whole Foods or go online at http://www.tofurky.com and you get a TOFURKY or a celebration roast or something like that along with all the usual fixings–just make sure it’s the meatless kind, and that’s the BEST thing you can do as well as not supporting animal cruelty!

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/SarahWhithed/ Sarah Whithed

        Deb, it may be too late for this year but there are small organic farms that raise turkeys free range and humanely. Even though their lives are short they live the way nature intended. You will be able to taste the difference. Think ahead to next Thanksgiving and consider looking into it now.

        • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/DebKimmel/ Deb Kimmel

          Thanks Sarah. I wasn’t really planning on hosting Thanksgiving so I didn’t really research it earlier. There is a natural/organic food store near me that I’ll check.

          • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/joe-espinosa/ Joe Espinosa

            I wanted to clarify 2 points. Dr. Greger explained that modern domesticated turkeys grow so rapidly that they are 28 pound market weight birds in the same time wild turkeys reach just 8 pounds. What this means is that even if kept in decently spaced clean conditions (not crowded, not being constantly burned by their own ammonia laden waste) without being debeaked and having toes cut off, they are still suffering immensely in their own bodies due to their massive and rapid growth. I certainly appreciate any move meat eaters make to reduce the suffering and death that they cause. But it is important that we be honest in looking at this issue. A most impactful move would be to avoid eating the animal products that cause the most suffering and death per calorie; birds, eggs and fishes.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607733971 facebook-607733971

            Some undercover investigations of so-called “humane” farms have revealed extreme cruelty and suffering. At the sanctuary where I volunteer, we frequently take in cruelty cases from local family farms. And as Joe said, most turkeys bred for meat suffer from their unnatural top-heaviness (the result of demand for “white meat”). It’s easier to buy a Gardein, Tofurky, or Field Roast roast. In my experience, meat-eaters like these products a lot and you can be assured of a cruelty-free meal.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/alan-brooks/ alan brooks

    simple dont buy them, there is no other way around this cruel practice, who said we should pay for the torture and death of these beautiful creatures at christmas in any case, your all responsible for making christmas for what it is, caring compassion , other wise what does it do for humans and (intelligence ) to condone this, do on to others as you do on to you,

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/HannahS/ Hannah S

    I posted this on FB and everyone freaked out saying that Wild Turkeys are more like 18-22lbs. Can someone explain why the article says, “Wild turkeys grow to be 8 pounds…”

    (I agree that it is a moot point as far as the article’s overall messages)

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

      While turkeys in the wild can live a decade or more, turkeys raised for meat are killed at just 3 to 4.5 months. At that age, commercial turkeys are a little over 28 pounds, whereas at that same age (4 months) wild turkeys average from 6.2 pounds (females) to 7.7 pounds (males). It’s thought to be that unnaturally accelerated growth rate that’s responsible for the musculoskeletal damage, cardiovascular problems, and increased susceptibility to disease that can have human health consequences. Thanks for the feedback–I edited it to make it clearer.

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/DebKimmel/ Deb Kimmel

        That makes much more sense. Thanks.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/DebKimmel/ Deb Kimmel

    Yeah, I though it was odd that it said 8lbs, since the wild turkeys in this area seem much larger than that. My cat is a bit more than double that in weight, but quite a bit smaller in size than the wild turkeys.

    Not everyone can be vegetarian. I do my best to make sure that the meat I buy comes from animals who were raised in a humane environment, hence the question about where to get a turkey that was raised in a humane environment and how to know for sure that it was.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/LisamarieDean/ Lisamarie Dean

      Not true that “not everyone can be vegetarian”(this is an excuse)–they CAN. It’s more like “not everyone WILL go veg”, which is unfortunately true.
      It doesn’t matter how he/she(the turkey) was raised anyway in the end; they still go to the same place and are murdered in the same brutal, merciless way. Meat is NOT NECESSARY, so we ought not support and participate in exploiting and abusing animals!

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/DebKimmel/ Deb Kimmel

        They don’t all go to the same place. There are family farms and small butcher shops that do things much differently than factory farms and slaughter houses. It’s not right or fair to lump them together.

        I respect the rights of people to be a vegetarian or vegan if they want to, but they also need to respect the rights of others who do eat meat. Just because I eat meat, doesn’t mean that I don’t care about animals. There are many farmers in my area who care about their animals and treat them well. Not every animal is brutalized.

        • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/KelleyMcGill/ Kelley McGill

          Regardless of how or where animals (just like your cat) are raised or killed, they are still being killed. Think of it this way, the only reasons (yes, the only one because All nutritional needs can be met through a veg diet) people eat meat are convenience and taste. Thus, animals (10 billion annually in the US alone) are being killed just because they taste nice. That is inhumane and morally wrong. If someone killed your cat or someone you love because they tasted good, wouldn’t that be brutal? I would say so.

          You cannot slaughter a living being unnecessarily without it being brutal. The act of killing itself is brutal. So yes, EVERY animal killed for meat is brutalized, and that is the truth.

          Consequentially, how can I or other like-minded individuals respect the dietary choices of others who partake in this brutality? I cannot, because that would be paramount to “respecting” one’s choice to rape, murder, or enslave (any living being, humans included).

          Finally, yes, everyone CAN be vegetarian. It is physically possible for every person on this planet. Indeed, many people I know who have gone veg say it was no where near as difficult as they expected and they adjust quickly.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607733971 facebook-607733971

          Deb, what about the rights of animals who want to live? Nearly all turkeys and other farmed animals are killed when they are very young. Most are deprived of their mothers also. Killing as a business inevitably results in some sloppiness. The standard small farm way of killing birds is the inverted cone, which is brutal. Each killing affects the other birds in the flock as well.

          We should refrain from inflicting avoidable harm on others. That’s a very baseline moral principle.

          If you really care about animals, quit killing them for pleasure. It’s easy to create an animal-free diet that is healthy, satisfying, and diverse. You can do it. I can assure you, as a former long-time meat eater, it’s much easier than trying to justify the infliction of avoidable harm and death on others.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      I agree with Lisamarie, eating plant based is achievable, and easy for everyone. Although I am for animal welfare, people are swayed more by health reasons over another animal’s welfare. Deb, I encourage you to view videos on this website that show how animal products do not even compare to plants in regards to health. Animal products are causal for basically, all of the degenerative diseases we have going on today.
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/meat-mortality/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/antioxidant-power-of-plant-foods-versus-animal-foods/

      Animal foods are in no way health promoting. If they were to be eaten it should be on the rarest of occasions and it should be wild game. Again Deb, i encourage you to see more of the videos by Dr. Greger; the most fascinating ones to me were the ones about aging.
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/repairing-dna-damage/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/research-into-reversing-aging/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/mitochondrial-theory-of-aging/

      Good luck on your search for health!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/KimEkengren/ Kim Ekengren

    Ohh… poor turkeys! :-(

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/danbrunell/ danbrunell

    Vegan holiday roast for me, thanks

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  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/joe-espinosa/ Joe Espinosa

    Causing others to suffer and die for our pleasure seems like a very selfish thing to do. We can each choose to not cause that suffering and death. Please pass the potatoes ;-)

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  • CharleneP

    does this apply to organically raised turkey which I usually buy for my family at Thanksgiving (but a a greater cost)?

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