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Did Your Thanksgiving Turkey Take Any Antibiotics?

In our series Pharmed Food, we've been looking closely at how the livestock industry in the U.S. uses antibiotics, and what that might mean for human health.

And so as Americans prepare to roast and baste plump, juicy holiday birds, we couldn't help but wonder what antibiotics the average turkey might have been given.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to answer that question (except for the small percentage of turkeys raised without antibiotics at all). As Dan Charles has reported, the government doesn't collect data on antibiotic sales by species or by use. And the industry doesn't volunteer it.

That's concerning to several public health advocates, who would like to know exactly when turkey producers are using antibiotics to make their animals grow faster, versus when they use them to treat an actual disease.

The distinction is important, health researchers say, because drugs given at low doses for growth promotion or disease prevention — known as "subtherapeutic" use — could lead to drug-resistant bacteria that might make humans sick. And given that these bacteria are proliferating in all kinds of different settings, including hospitals, doctors are worried that antibiotic use on the farm is part of the reason why some of their antibiotics don't work on humans anymore.

The livestock industry, meanwhile, has long argued that its antibiotic use is essential to maintaining the health of their animals — and not responsible for the drug resistance doctors see in humans.

The National Turkey Federation, for instance, was reluctant to share any details on how its members use antibiotics. When we asked spokesman Keith Williams about which drugs are typically given for disease prevention or growth promotion, he told us by email: "It's going to depend on whether the flock is exposed to other animals, or is located in an area where a disease outbreak affecting them is active."

And Foster Farms, one of the nation's biggest turkey producers, says it does not use antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion. (It may still use them in low doses for disease prevention.) But according to the Poultry Science Association, many turkey producers typically add antibiotics to the diet of commercial turkeys to improve feed efficiency, meat quality and growth.

Penn State poultry scientist Michael Hulet tells The Salt that turkeys can get infected with salmonella, clostridia and E. coli, so producers sometimes give their flocks drugs in low doses to "protect them from some of these challenges."

Of course, it is hard to generalize about the turkey industry and which drugs and how much producers are using on a regular basis. But we do know of a few drugs that also matter in human medicine.

Ionophores are the biggest class of drugs given to turkeys, and they're not given to humans at all. But as we reported in July, the drug gentamiacin is commonly given to turkeys (and chickens) to prevent disease. The same drug is prescribed to humans to treat urinary tract infections caused by E. coli. And in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about rising E. coli resistance to the drug.

The expectation is that within a few years, the Food and Drug Administration will tell the livestock industry to phase out the use of the medically important drugs like gentamiacin. But for now, producers are still allowed to use it.

So does all this mean you should fear your Thanksgiving turkey? No. While antibiotic-resistant bacteria do occasionally show up on supermarket turkeys, the risk of getting sick is pretty low, especially if you cook your turkey thoroughly.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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