Safe Turkey for Thanksgiving

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With Thanksgiving upon us and the holiday season beginning, particularly in this year of turmoil from COVID-19, added confidence that our holiday meals are safe and wholesome is more critical than ever. These days, there are so many choices, labels, and marketing tactics across the food industry that it can be overwhelming.

So, what about antibiotics? Is the turkey we prepare for our meals safe and antibiotic-free? This is often a concern of consumers, and rightly so. Everyone wants to rest assured the food on our table is safe and healthy for our family. The answer is yes! It is against the law to sell meat containing antibiotics. All meat legally sold in the United States has been inspected to be safe from antibiotics. That said, I thought it would be a good time to share the many food safety precautions and mandatory steps that are taken all along the way to ensure this safe, antibiotic-free food supply – from the farm to the table.

The United States Department of Agriculture has two agencies that work together, along with farmers and processing plants to ensure this safety in food animals. These are the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Turkeys are raised for four to five months in climate-controlled barns, safe from adverse weather and predators, and are approximately 6 months old when harvested. They roam around the barn and are fed a balanced ration to meet their nutritional needs, mostly of corn and soybean meal, with added vitamins and minerals.

While on the farm, their health is monitored by the grower with the advisement of a veterinarian. Antibiotics may be administered as the turkeys grow and develop, always under direction of the veterinarian, to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. If so, a “withdrawal” period is required to ensure the birds are free from any antibiotic residues prior to slaughter. Extensive recordkeeping and management takes place to ensure that any antibiotic medications are removed from the feed or water source well before the turkeys reach the desired weight and transported to the processing plant for harvest. The FSIS veterinarians inspect live birds upon arrival to the plant, checking for sickness and injury, and randomly sample the birds to test for any antibiotic residues. Any birds in question are pulled off the processing line for closer inspection. Additional inspection and testing are done to check for foodborne hazards, such as E. coli and Salmonella. Processed birds are frequently washed and kept chilled to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. All processing plants are required to have and follow Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures and a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to ensure the turkeys are protected from any dangerous chemicals, materials, or food safety risks.

While we’ve focused mainly on turkeys in this article, these same precautions and inspections are taken for all U.S. raised meat products. If you are serving ham or roast beef at your Thanksgiving meal, relax, and rest assured that the pork and beef you eat has been safely grown, processed, inspected, and packaged in the same manner.

For more information on food safety with meat, poultry, or egg products, USDA has a meat and poultry hotline: 1-888-MPHotline. You can also check the FSIS website.