Antibiotics and other drugs are common in the turkey that thousands of Americans eat every day.

AlterNet / By Martha Rosenberg

So far, 2011 has not been a great year for turkey producers. In May, an article in Clinical Infectious Diseases reported that half of U.S. meat from major grocery chains–turkey, beef, chicken and pork–harbors antibiotic resistant staph germs commonly called MRSA. Turkey had twice and even three times the MRSA of all other meats, in another study.

In June, Pfizer announced it was ending arsenic-containing chicken feed which no one realized they were eating anyway, but its arsenic-containing Histostat, fed to turkeys, continues. Poultry growers use inorganic arsenic, a recognized carcinogen, for “growth promotion, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation,” says the FDA. Yum.

And in August, Cargill Value Added Meats, the nation’s third-largest turkey processor, recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey because of a salmonella outbreak, linked to one death and 107 illnesses in 31 states. Even as it closed its Springdale, Arkansas plant, steam cleaned its machinery and added “two additional anti-bacterial washes” to its processing operations, 185,000 more pounds were recalled the next month from the same plant.

Since the mad cow and Chinese melamine scandals of the mid 2000’s, a lot more people think about the food their food ate than before. But fewer people think about the drugs their food ingested. Food animal drugs seldom rate Capitol Hill hearings which is just fine with Big Pharma animals divisions since if people knew the antibiotics, heavy metals, growth promotants, vaccines, anti-parasite drugs and feed additives used on the farm, they would lose their appetite. Besides, people aren’t Animal Pharma’s primary customers anyway and the long term safety of animals drugs isn’t an issue, since patients supposed to die.

One of the late Sen.Ted Kennedy’s last legislative fights was about the overuse of livestock antibiotics. “It seems scarcely believable that these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs,” he wrote in a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (PAMTA) which has yet to pass. “These precious drugs aren’t even used to treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America,” said Kennedy.

Because antibiotics make animals use feed more efficiently so they eat less and control disease in confinement farming’s packed conditions at the same time, they are practically the fifth food group. On a turkey farm with five million hens, antibiotics would save almost 2,000 tons of feed a year, says an article in a poultry journal.

And when the FDA tried to ban cephalosporins in 2008, one type of antibiotic crucial for treating salmonella in children, it became apparent just what Kennedy was up against. Two months after the FDA announced a hearing about a cephalosporin “Order of Prohibition” in agriculture, the regulatory action had morphed into a “Hearing to Review the Advances In Animal Health Within The Livestock Industry” thanks to lobbyists from the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries.

“Order of Prohibition”… “Hearing to Review the Advances In Animal Health Within The Livestock Industry,” same idea, right?

At the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry hearings [PDF], the National Turkey Federation’s Michael Rybolt defended antibiotics as a cost savings to consumers. “The increased costs to raise turkeys without antibiotics is real,” he said. “Today at retail outlets here in the D.C. market, a conventionally raised turkey costs $1.29 per pound. A similar whole turkey that was produced without antibiotics costs $2.29 per pound. With the average consumer purchasing a 15 pound whole turkey, that would mean there would be $15 tacked on to their grocery bill.”

Conventionally grown turkeys are even a better deal when you consider the cost of antibiotics!

And, antibiotic-based turkey farming is downright green, said Rybolt, calling 227 acre turkey operations, “small family farms.” Without them, more land would be needed to grow crops and house the animals because of the “decrease in density.” And, with 175,550 more tons of feed needed, there would be “an increase in manure.”

When the FDA capitulated to industry and turned the cephalosporin prohibition into a salute to animal “advances,” former Kansas governor and former dairyman John Carlin, asked, “What changed in less than five months? Certainly the problem hasn’t gone away.”

This month, the FDA also rejected petitions to ban human antibiotics like penicillins, tetracyclines and sulfonamides in livestock filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Environmental Defense, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), and the Union of Concerned scientists, some filed over 12 years ago. Why? “FDA cannot withdraw approval of a new animal drug until the legally-mandated process,” said an FDA spokesman. The process includes an “evidentiary hearing,” perhaps like the cephalosporin advances.

Of course germs in turkey and other meat, even antibiotic resistant germs, are neutralized by cooking–but drug residues are not. A report last year from the USDA’s inspector general accuses U.S. slaughterhouses of releasing products to the public with excessive drug levels in them and charges that, “The effects of these residues on human beings who consume such meat are a growing concern.”

Nor are the antibiotics just in the meat! Scientists at the University of Minnesota found antibiotic residues in corn, green onions and cabbage after growing them on soil fertilized with livestock manure. The drugs siphoned right up from the soil in just six weeks.

A quick look at the Code of Federal Regulations for turkey drugs does not whet you appetite for Thanksgiving. There are several arsenic turkey drugs approved to provide an, “increased rate of weight gain and improved feed efficiency,” say the official guidelines. But they are also “dangerous for ducks, geese, and dogs,” and must be discontinued, “5 days before slaughtering animals for human consumption to allow elimination of the drug from edible tissues.” Whew.

Halofuginone, another drug given to turkeys to kill pathogens, “is toxic to fish and aquatic life” and “an irritant to eyes and skin,” says the Federal Code. “Avoid contact with skin, eyes, or clothing” and “Keep out of lakes, ponds, and streams.” Bon appetit.

Drug-based farming has cut the time to “grow” an animal almost in half while doubling the market size of the animal itself. For example, chickens were once slaughtered at fourteen weeks, weighing two pounds and are now slaughtered at seven weeks, weighing four and six pounds.

But the Brave New food techniques come at a price because the animals’ organs can not always keep up with the metabolic frenzy. Birds “fed and managed in such a way that they are growing rapidly,” are at risk of sudden death from cardiac problems and aortic rupture, say poultry scientists.

Growth drugs in turkeys may also “result in leg weakness or paralysis,” says the Federal Code, a side effect that a turkey slaughterhouse worker reports firsthand. Many turkeys arrive at the House of Raeford, in Raeford, NC with legs broken or dislocated, he told me in an interview and, “When you try to remove them from their crates, their legs twist completely around, limp and offering no resistance.” The turkeys, “must have been in a lot of pain,” says the worker, but they don’t cry out. “In fact the only sound as you hang them, he says, is the “trucks being washed out to go back and get a new load.”

The undercover employee’s reports of the “live hanger” culture at the House of Raeford, in which workers pulled the heads and legs off turkeys when they were stuck in crates and worse, led to Denny’s suspending its business from Raeford, the nation’s seventh largest turkey producer. The slaughterhouse is also infamous for a chlorine spill that killed a worker in 2003, an ammonia spill that evacuated two towns the next year and a murdered worker in 2006.

Still, the mother of all turkey drugs is the asthma-like drug ractopamine, marketed as the “Medicated Tom Turkey Feed” Topmax. Approved for turkeys only two years ago, figures for Topmax use in turkeys are not yet available but the same drug is now used in 45 percent of U.S. pigs and 30 percent of ration-fed cattle.

There are two reasons ractopamine has raised safety questions. One is that its label reads, “WARNING: The active ingredient in Topmax, ractopamine hydrochloride, is a beta-adrenergic agonist. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children. The Topmax 9 formulation (Type A Medicated Article) poses a low dust potential under usual conditions of handling and mixing. When mixing and handling Topmax, use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask. Operators should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. If accidental eye contact occurs, immediately rinse eyes thoroughly with water. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. The material safety data sheet contains more detailed occupational safety information. To report adverse effects, access medical information, or obtain additional product information, call 1-800-428-4441.”

The other reason is that ractopamine is not withdrawn at slaughter. In fact, it is begun as the animals near slaughter and started during turkeys’ last 14 days. It is actually pumping through their systems as they arrive on the killing floor.

Like antibiotics and arsenic, ractopamine is given to turkeys to make them grow faster. It is similar to clenbuterol, a performance enhancing sports drug that is banned in the US, for both humans and livestock, and elsewhere. But ractopamine is also banned in Europe, Taiwan and China, where 1,700 ractopamine “poisonings” were reported and ractopamine-produced pork was seized in 2007. (You have to worry when China calls a food unsafe.)

Ractopamine caused actual riots in Taiwan in 2007 when 3,500 Tawainese pig farmers, some carrying pigs, threw dung and rotten eggs at police and military soldiers over the rumor that a ractopamine ban would be lifted. “Get out, USA pork” and “We refuse to eat pork that contains poisonous ractopamine,” they chanted for hours according to Taiwan News.

Reports of ractopamine’s lack of safety are not hard to find. In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) termed ractopamine a cardiac stimulator. Ractopamine residues “represent a genuine risk to consumers,” wrote a medical journal article, citing “long plasma half-lives, and relatively slow rates of elimination.” And a report from Ottawa’s Bureau of Veterinary Drugs says that rats fed ractopamine developed a constellation of birth defects like cleft palate, protruding tongue, short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids and enlarged heart.

The FDA is well aware of ractopamine’s downside. In 2003, three years after the drug was approved for use in U.S. pigs, the FDA accused its manufacturer, Elanco, of withholding information about ractopamine’s “safety and effectiveness” and “adverse animal drug experiences” in a fourteen-page warning letter.

Elanco, said the FDA, failed to report furious pig farmers phoning the company about “dying animals,” “downer pigs,” animals “down and shaking,” “hyperactivity” and “vomiting after eating feed with Paylean,” and also suppressed clinical trial information. But, thanks to same probable lobbying that reversed the cephalosporin ban, the FDA approved ractopamine for cattle the following year and for use in turkeys in 2009! Last year, the FDA enlarged the approval for cattle.

Turkey meat produced with ractopamine is not the same as normal meat by Elanco’s own admission! “Alterations” in muscle were seen in turkeys fed ractopamine like an increase in “mononuclear cell infiltrate and myofiber degeneration,” says its 2008 new drug application documents. There was “an increase in the incidence of cysts,” and differences, some “significant,” in the weight of organs like hearts, kidneys and livers. (“Enlarged hearts” had been seen in test rats feed ractopamine in the Canadian studies.)

Still, ractopamine, like antibiotics, is being hailed as “green” and for lowering the carbon footprint. It has “positive environmental benefits for livestock producers in terms of decreased nitrogen and phosphorus excretions,” extols one journal article. It results in a, “reduced amount of total animal waste,” unless, of course, you count the manure coming from Big Pharma.

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets.

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