My coffee arrived in a red cup today so I know the holidays are officially upon us; Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. If you’re ordering a turkey (and/or you’re incredibly organized) you’ll likely be picking out your bird in the next few days. Who are you people? For you prepared and pre-paid types and even those of us who wait until the Thanksgiving week, we have some decisions to make and a great opportunity. What turkey we buy matters.
This year I’ll be making the choice to purchase a turkey raised without antibiotics –when you choose this type of turkey it doesn’t mean “organic” (even some organic meats come from animals fed antibiotics). Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem and I’m taking a new step to keep my kids away from excess antibiotics, like those found in many Thanksgiving turkeys. This is new for me and hasn’t been a priority until the last few years as I’ve tuned into information about the human microbiome and ways that antibiotics in our land, food, water and pharmacies really change our own habitat and potentially our family’s health.
The Problem With Unnecessary Antibiotics
I’ve written several posts on avoiding antibiotics when unnecessary, but here’s the cliff notes version: When you (or your child) take an antibiotic, most of the susceptible bacteria exposed to the drug will die. “Good bacteria” (naturally living on our skin or in your throat or GI tract) and “bad bacteria” (the ones causing the infection) will fail to survive. However, some bacteria will possess genes that allow survival amid the presence of antibiotics. Over time and without competition from other organisms, these bacteria can even thrive. This set-up creates different colonies of bacteria where some will be resistant ‘superbugs’ and changing the bacteria in our environment and our own bodies. Some of these colonies will eventually cause infections that are hard to treat. The more antibiotics are used anywhere, the more possibilities for these ‘superbugs’ to replicate with resistance over time. In fact 97% of doctors are extremely or fairly concerned about the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections. Most parents are worried, too.
The Case For Antibiotic-Free Turkeys
Although antibiotic overuse in the clinic and hospital is high, there are even more antibiotics used in our meat. According to the Sharing Antimicrobial Reports for Pediatric Stewardship (SHARPS) group of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society: “while as many as 50% of antibiotic prescriptions may be overly broad or even unnecessary, animal agriculture uses four times the amount of antibiotics as human medicine, and mostly in healthy animals for growth promotion or disease prevention on crowded farms.”
To help raise awareness take a pledge to purchase antibiotic-free turkeys this year. This is your chance for turkey greatness.
Why Worry About Your Turkey’s Meds This Year?
I spoke with SHARPS member, pediatrician, and infectious disease researcher Dr. Scott Weissman about how the centerpiece of many Thanksgiving meals is becoming a key player in the fight against antibiotic-resistance. Of course cost issues are real but perhaps the splurge is worth it for the holiday. Quick price points on turkey raised without antibiotics around here (Nov 2014) –big grocery store chain: $2.99/lb; local, natural grocery store: $3.99/lb; warehouse wholesaler: $2.79
Mama Doc: Tell us a little more about antibiotics used in meat. How has this data changed what you do for your own family?
Dr Weissman: In addition to growth promotion and disease prevention, antibiotics may be used to prevent diseases that are a direct consequence of industrial farming methods; eg, the high-calorie diets of grain-finished beef cattle lead to an unhealthy acidic environment in the cattle rumen; the acidity is damaging to the rumen lining, and allows the bacteria that normally reside in the rumen to enter the liver circulation and produce abscesses. Grass-finished beef are not at risk of this series of events.
When we purchase beef, we select grass-finished beef.
Mama Doc: What Do You Do At Your Home?
When we do buy meat, we read the label and favor meat products from animals that have been fed organic diets and raised without antibiotics. I am very compulsive in handling raw meat products in the kitchen due to the risk of contamination with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
For Thanksgiving, we will purchase a turkey raised without antibiotics this year. This is the first year that antibiotic use has factored into our thanksgiving purchase. [In addition] family members and neighbors have pledged to purchase antibiotic-free turkey.
Mama Doc: Most importantly, will you be tweeting about your turkey?
Mama Doc: If we eat meat that has been raised with antibiotics, would it simply change the bacteria in gut differently or those in our whole body?
The major risk in purchasing and preparing raw meat is that of contaminating the kitchen surfaces, cookware and dining ware with bacteria that may be pathogenic, and then becoming colonized with these bacteria. We know the most about bacteria that produce gastrointestinal diseases like diarrhea (salmonella, campylobacter), but animal products certainly transmit other bacteria like E. coli that can cause other diseases as well, including urinary tract infections. If these bacteria also happen to be antibiotic resistant, then any subsequent infections [we have] may be more difficult to treat. We are at risk of acquiring bacteria in this manner from any raw meat product, organic or not, antibiotic-free or not.
I am not aware of compelling evidence that antibiotic residues in the meat pose a substantial risk, and this risk is mitigated by contemporary agricultural practices in herd management.
Mama Doc: Is there any evidence that those of us who eat meat raised on antibiotics are more likely to have more drug-resistant microbiomes?
The best data, which come from the National Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) , concern the prevalence of pathogenic bacteria and/or antibiotic-resistant bacteria in certain retail meat products. The meat products with the highest rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria present the greatest risk of household contamination, and hence of ingestion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We don’t fully understand what predicts whether ingestion of these bacteria will lead to long-term colonization (ie, whether these bacteria will become stable members of the host’s microbiome).
Mama Doc: Is one product worse than others when it comes to antibiotics (ie do cow’s get more antibiotics than chicken or pigs, or vice versa)?
NARMS data suggest that turkey and chicken products have higher rates of contamination with bacterial pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than beef and pork.
See everyone, you can likely understand why I’m saying if it were my child, a turkey raised without antibiotics this year. A great choice for now and the future.