Turkey Survey Shows 16% Contain Dangerous Bacteria

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 18, 1999 (Washington) -- When family and friends gather around the Thanksgiving table next week, the last thing they want to think about is food poisoning. However, an annual survey of turkey safety shows that although progress is being made, consumers need to take precautions against potentially lethal bacterial infections.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) did an analysis of 50 turkeys purchased during the last few weeks in Chicago, Miami, Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. The birds were selected from different stores and were equally divided between fresh and frozen. Kosher and organic turkeys were also represented among the brands tested. The findings were released at a news conference here Thursday.

According to CSPI, 28% of the fresh turkeys were contaminated by Campylobacter bacteria vs. 4% for the frozen fowl. Overall, 16% of the birds tested were Campylobacter positive vs. a 90% rate in a survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) two years ago.

California turkeys had the highest rate of Campylobacter infection, which can cause cramping, diarrhea, fever, and, in rare cases, death. "Most surprising of all, not one of the 50 turkeys was contaminated with Salmonella. Thus, the new hazard control systems in turkey plants appear to be reducing Salmonella," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI's director of food safety. California's contamination rate may be related to a warmer climate and, possibly, differences in food handling practices, she says.

CSPI, the group noted for warning about the nutritional evils of such favorites as theatre popcorn and Chinese food, says the turkey survey is good news but nothing to gobble about, because it covered such a small sample. The findings can't be considered definitive. Still, says DeWaal, "Both the Salmonella results and the Campylobacter results are far better than we expected."

According to the CDC, Campylobacter and Salmonella account for half the deaths and most of the serious infections linked to food poisonings in fowl in the U.S. "Salmonella is much more likely to go to the bloodstream, and much more likely to kill people," says Judy Johnson, PhD, a University of Maryland pathologist who spoke at the news conference.


DeWaal was critical of turkey processors for not publicly sharing data on the progress of their hazard analysis program to improve food safety, when other meat producers have already done so. The hangup, says DeWaal, is USDA's failure to develop a "performance standard" for testing turkeys.

Sherrie Rosenblatt of the National Turkey Federation tells WebMD that the industry has been working with the government to develop a new industry-wide standard that will make product safety more than just a "marketing opportunity."

Meanwhile, there are steps consumers can take to protect themselves from fowl gone foul. "The bottom line is consumers should treat every turkey like it's potentially contaminated ... because we know those hazards are in the flocks. We know that it's in the slaughter plants, and they could be coming home on your Thanksgiving turkey," says DeWaal.

Arthur Frank, MD, who heads the diet and weight loss program at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, tells WebMD that preventing turkey-related infections is really a 'kitchen management' issue. He says to keep in mind that utensils that touch the bird should be washed before they're used for other food to protect against cross-contamination.

Other tips from CSPI include: carve out a big enough place in your refrigerator so the turkey won't contaminate nearby food. If you thaw your turkey in a microwave, cook it as soon as it's ready. Finally, use a meat thermometer, which takes the guesswork out of food safety.

WebMD Health News
© 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.