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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Talkin’ Turkey

Air Date: Week of

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This year you might want to think about going organic for Turkey day. Host Steve Curwood talks with Margaret Mellon, director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, about what it means when the same antibiotics consumers rely on are being used in the meat they eat.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

We're coming up on Turkey Day, and that means the bird is factoring pretty big on upcoming menus. One of the healthy choices you can make this year is antibiotic-free turkey.

Joining the trend is the Bon Appetit Management Company, a major California-based food supplier that will send three quarters of a million pounds of turkey to restaurants this year. The company has demanded its turkey farmers stop feeding their birds antibiotics.

To find out more about what antibiotic-fed livestock can do to consumers, we spoke with Margaret Mellon. She's the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Hi there.

MELLON: Hello there.

CURWOOD: Tell me, why is eating an antibiotic-fed turkey a bad thing for us?

MELLON: It's a good question. A lot of people don't really understand that the same antibiotics that are given us in doctors' offices are also fed in enormous quantities to animals that are being produced for food. I'm talking about the penicillins, the sulfa drugs, the eurithromycins, that we're all familiar with and we all get to treat our various diseases and infections, those very same drugs are used out on the farm. And, of course, today we're talking about turkeys so we'll emphasize the fact that they're used in turkey production; but they're also used to produce chickens, beef, and swine.

CURWOOD: Now, how much is a lot of antibiotics?

MELLON: Well, about eight times the amount of antibiotics used in humans are used in animals. So we're talking about something on the order of 13 million pounds of antibiotics a year that are from the same classes that are used in human medicine that are given to food animals just to promote growth or compensate for stress.

CURWOOD: So, what would happen to me if I eat a turkey that was fed a lot of antibiotics? Would it make me sick?

MELLON: Well, the turkey wouldn't make you sick, but the bacteria that are found in the guts of the turkey certainly could. And if those bacteria, which are often, you know, found on the carcass that you purchase in the store, if those were resistant to antibiotics as a result of the antibiotics they'd been fed back on the farm, those bacteria could give you food poisoning and, if they did, that poisoning might not be treatable when you went to the doctor's office.

CURWOOD: Now, could you give me some examples of how consumption of antibiotic-fed livestock, poultry, turkeys, has affected humans?

MELLON: Well, diseases are caused by microorganisms, some of which come from animals. A good example of the kinds of diseases are: food poisoning, urinary tract infections, and a lot of post-operative infections that you get in the hospital.

Just to give you an example, I have a friend who had a urinary tract infection that was resistant to the sulfa drug that she was first given. Because that drug didn't work, her urinary tract infection progressed to a kidney infection, and she was out of work for almost six months. It means a lot when a drug doesn't work.

CURWOOD: If we don't use antibiotics, wouldn't this make food more costly?

MELLON: Not necessarily. We know from experience in Europe that changes of the kind we'd like to see happen in the U.S. have been made, and that there haven't been any appreciable increase in food prices at all. And I think that our producers are as savvy as those in Europe, and they could make the changes without resulting in higher food costs here, as well.

CURWOOD: So, for turkeys, the Bon Appetit Company has asked that their producers not use antibiotics in their feed. Any other major food producers who've also taken a step?

MELLON: The McDonald's Corporation, Compass Incorporated, a big food service company. There are a number of fast food companies that have made some sort of a public statement that they're going to seek out or require that their producers not use antibiotics. There's a patchwork of activity in the private sector that is moving our food production in a direction of not relying on over-use of antibiotics. And it's all to the good.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, between now and Thanksgiving, I want to go out and purchase a turkey for my family to have at the big banquet. How do I find a turkey that hasn't been grown using antibiotics in its feed?

MELLON: Well, it's a lot harder than I wish it was for you to do that. If you don't have access to one of the restaurants served by Bon Appetit, I think your best bet is to go out and buy an organic turkey. A federally-certified organic turkey has been grown without the use of any antibiotics for any purpose and that's the most reliable choice you have right now.

CURWOOD: Margaret Mellon is the director of the Food and Environment Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.

MELLON: Thank you.



Keep Antibiotics Working


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