According to the Poultry Science Association (PSA), researchers are now helping turkey producers meet the demands of the thin slice of the market seeking "natural fed" birds – turkeys whose diets are organic, contain no animal protein products, and are antibiotic-free.
The average consumer in the US ate 17.6 pounds of turkey meat in 2008, making turkey the fourth most popular form of animal protein as measured by per capita consumption, behind chicken, beef and pork.
Dr. Michael Hulet, associate professor in Penn State University's Dept. of Poultry Science, estimates that antibiotic-free (ABF), organic turkey represents approx. 2.3% of the total number of turkeys produced each year in the US. That translates into about 6 mln ABF turkeys out of roughly 270 mln turkeys produced in the US annually. Much of the ABF turkey meat is sold, according to Dr. Hulet, to up-scale specialty retail stores in the Northeast, though shelf space is also now being provided for ABF turkey meat in many other retail outlets as well.
The relatively recent demand from a small segment of consumers for ABF turkey is one offshoot, says Dr. Hulet of the diversification of turkey products in the marketplace.
"Turkey consumption in the US has increased nearly 300% since 1970, largely due to the growing variety – and increasing quality – of turkey products being made available by producers, ranging from cuts and parts to further-processed products. The demand that producers are seeing from some consumers for antibiotic-free turkeys is a great illustration of just how flexible turkey producers have to be today to meet the demands of all segments of the market. Poultry scientists are working to help them meet that demand," said Dr. Hulet.
Antibiotic use in turkey production
Producers typically add antimicrobials to commercial turkey diets to improve livability, feed efficiency, meat quality and growth, says PSA. While this use of antimicrobials is established practice and has long been known to be safe to humans, the advent of work on developing ABF turkeys, according to Dr. Hulet, was driven by the concern among some consumers about the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of the normal use of antimicrobials in turkey feed.
"In response to demands from a relatively small group of consumers, turkey producers have looked to poultry scientists to help them explore alternative feed ingredients to the use of antimicrobials. Researchers have responded by helping to develop and test alternative forms of additives that have effects similar to antimicrobials. For example, some additives formed as fermentation products – yeast byproducts, such as mannan oligosaccharides – partially mimic antimicrobials by changing the microbiological florae in the digestive tract while also eliminating potential pathogens that would otherwise diminish growth productivity," said Dr. Hulet.
While yeast by-products have to date, says Hulet, met with varying success in terms of promoting growth and growth efficiency, other prebiotics, such as oregano, fructo-oligosaccharides, and chicory, and probiotics have been proposed to help replace the use of antibiotics and growth promoters with some nutritional supplements that have shown promise in sustaining turkey growth and performance. ABF turkeys have mortality rates that are 1-2% higher than non-ABF turkeys; this fact, along with lower placement densities, increases the production costs of this segment of the industry. Hence other nutritional and management research is needed to help this segment of the industry.
Researchers have also shown other non-nutritional strategies to mitigate bacterial levels in turkey houses, such as sterilization of litter by in-house composting, use of nipple drinkers, and improved ventilation systems to enhance environmental conditions in the house and decrease the bacterial challenges to the growing ABF turkeys.