Testimonies and Speeches
Testimony of Caroline Smith DeWaal,
Director of Food Safety
for the Center for Science in the Public Interest,
on Food Safety for the Holidays,
at the National Press Club

November 17, 2000 Washington, DC

   I want to thank the National Press Club for inviting me again this year to “talk turkey” about food safety. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, everyone no doubt is looking forward to getting together with family and friends for a holiday feast. But in the rush of holiday preparations, it is important to take extra precautions to keep food safe.

   Americans will eat nearly 50 million turkeys this year. As far as turkey hazards go, there is good news and there is bad news.

   First, the good news. New government programs appear to be lowering Salmonella rates on turkey. Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) tested 50 turkeys for Salmonella and Campylobacter, the two best-known hazards associated with turkeys, and what we found surprised us. Sixteen percent of the turkeys we tested carried Campylobacter, while none had Salmonella. Our samples were collected in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami/Fort Lauderdale.

   This year, researchers at the University of Maryland reported similar results after testing 161 turkey samples collected around the Washington, DC region. They found very low Salmonella levels — about 2 percent. They also found that 15.5 percent of the turkey samples carried Campylobacter, a finding comparable to our study last year. If these studies reflect trends nationally, then turkeys consumers purchase in grocery stores are probably not as contaminated as government data on rates in slaughter plants originally suggested. Unfortunately, the government is still not systematically testing turkeys for Salmonella, so there is no national data to confirm the trend.

   There is also some bad news. CSPI and health officials warned for years that the use of antibiotics in poultry could cause drug-resistant “super-germs.” Unfortunately our worst fears have come true. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has documented a marked increase in poultry contaminated with Campylobacter that can resist treatment with powerful and valuable antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones. These drugs are first-choice antibiotic drugs available for treating human foodborne infections. Unless this trend is reversed, Campylobacter infections in humans will become harder and harder to treat.

   The rise in antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter is, at least in part, the result of the Food and Drug Administration’s 1995 approval of fluoroquinolone use in poultry production. The drug is needed to treat and prevent E. coli and other infections. At the time of that approval, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others (including CSPI) registered public concern that this class of antibiotics was too important for human treatment to risk its use in animals.

   In a 1999 CDC study of chicken purchased at retail markets, fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter was present in over 10% of the samples. A recent government risk assessment said that chickens harboring these tough new bacteria could sicken an estimated 11,000 people annually, resulting in prolonged illnesses or complications. On the basis of the overwhelming evidence, the FDA recently reversed course and announced its intention to withdraw the approval of fluoroquinolones for use in poultry. CSPI supports FDA’s effort to halt the use of these important human antibiotics on poultry.

   The withdrawal of approval for fluoroquinolone use will improve the safety of turkeys, as well as chickens. In an industry survey in 1998, producers reported that between five and seven percent of the flocks were being treated with that powerful antibiotic. This means that turkeys are likely to be carrying the same stains of antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter that show up on chickens.

   We urge FDA to speed the withdrawal of approval of the two fluoroquinolones that can currently be used in poultry, Baytril and SaraFlox. We applaud Abbott Laboratories, the maker of SaraFlox, for voluntarily complying with FDA’s proposed ban. The other drug manufacturer, Bayer Corporation, has not yet agreed to stop selling its product, and may challenge the FDA. To help protect the public health, we urge Bayer to stop marketing Baytril for poultry.

   Luckily, both new and old strains of Campylobacter, as well as our old favorite, Salmonella, can be killed with proper cooking and handling in the kitchen. To assure an all-around great holiday, it is vital to remember the basics of safe-food preparation:

  • Keep your uncooked turkey double-wrapped in your refrigerator or freezer. Raw turkey juices can spread bacteria, so make certain that when you are handling the turkey, your counters are clear. Everything that touches the raw or partially cooked turkey, such as hands, thermometers, or other implements, needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with warm, soapy water.
  • Proper defrosting is as important as thorough cooking to prevent illnesses. Defrosting on the counter allows bacteria to grow on the surface of the turkey while the interior is still thawing. To prevent this, frozen turkeys should be thawed in the refrigerator. Simply allow one day for every five pounds.
  • Thermometers take the guesswork out of food safety. The best place to check the turkey’s temperature is in the thickest part of the thigh, away from the bone. Checking it in several places is even better. When the thermometer reads 180F, your turkey is done. We recommend you use a thermometer even if your turkey has a pop-up timer, which may not always be accurate.
  • Warm, moist stuffing inside a turkey is also a great place for bacteria to grow. This means a second temperature check is needed on the stuffing to ensure that it reaches 165° F. If you don’t have a thermometer, be sure to thoroughly heat the stuffing on the stove after removing it from the turkey, or better yet, cook it on the stove instead of inside the bird.

   While Salmonella and Campylobacter are the best-known hazards for turkey consumers, they aren’t the only ones. This year, CSPI is issuing a “leftover alert” to remind our holiday chefs that food safety doesn’t stop once the meal is prepared. How you handle the food after the meal is equally as important.

   CSPI has documented over 21 outbreaks linked to turkey between 1990 and 1997. This chart shows that fully half of those outbreaks were caused by two little-known hazards, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens, which together cause an estimated 435,000 food poisoning illnesses annually. Those outbreaks are generally caused by improper cooling of fully-cooked food. What happens is this: The hazard enters the food even with proper handling. C. perfringens produces heat-resistant spores that survive cooking and Staphyloccocus germs can enter the food from normal handling. Then food is either left out too long after the meal or stored in containers that don’t allow for quick cooling. The bacteria starts to grow, forming toxins that can make you sick. Even reheating will not always destroy the hazard. So consumers must act to prevent it.

   Luckily, leftover hazards can be avoided by remembering one simple formula: 2 hours, 2 inches, 4 days. Let me explain:

  • 2 hours: Move food from the oven to the feast to the refrigerator in two hours or less.
  • 2 inches: Store food at a shallow depth - about two inches - to speed chilling.
  • 4 days: Refrigerated leftovers should be eaten in four days or less. Freeze leftovers that will be kept longer.

Following the 2 hours/2 inches/4 days formula for all leftovers could help prevent over 400,000 food-related illnesses each year.

These simple steps will help keep your holiday feast from turning into a fiasco. Everyone at CSPI hopes you enjoy a happy and healthy Thanksgiving holiday next week!