Diestel Turkey, sold by Whole Foods and other retailers at premium prices, says on its website that its “animals are never given hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants.”
But Diestel Turkey samples tested by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest otherwise, leading consumers to wonder: Can these companies be trusted?
According to testing conducted under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) National Residue Program, samples of Diestel Turkey products tested positive for numerous drug and antibiotic residues.
One of those drugs, Chloramphenicol, is strictly prohibited by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in food production because it’s known to have “severe toxic effects in humans including bone marrow suppression or aplastic anemia in susceptible individuals.”
According to an amended complaint filed November 13, against Diestel Turkey Ranch, the FSIS inspected Diestel turkeys on four dates in 2015 and 2016, and reported, in addition to Chloramphenicol, residues of antibiotics important for human use, veterinary antibiotics, a hormone and other pharmaceuticals.
Animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) brought the action against the privately held Sonora, Calif., turkey producer in the Superior Court of California. DxE is suing Diestel for falsely advertising its turkey products as hormone- and antibiotic-free, and for deceiving consumers about how the company's birds are raised and treated.
According to the lawsuit, Diestel turkey products tested by the USDA were positive for residues of:
• ketamine, a narcotic. The Drug Enforcement Agency describes ketamine as “a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects.” Ketamine’s street names include Special K, Cat Tranquilizer, and Cat Valium, the latter two referencing its veterinary uses, and it is commonly referred to as a club drug because it is used illegally at dance clubs and raves. The FDA has not approved the use of ketamine in poultry.
• Amikacin, an antibiotic for human use that the FDA considers important for humans.
• Spectinomycin, also an antibiotic for human use
• Hygromycin, an antibiotic for veterinary use
• Ipronidazole, also a veterinary pharmaceutical
• Melengestrol acetate, a synthetic hormone also known as MGA
• Sulfanitran, an antibacterial drug feed additive
Kim Richman of Richman Law Group, which represents DxE, said that to the best of his knowledge, the USDA did not test any certified organic Diestel Turkey samples. “Since organic meat goes through a certification process, the end product is not tested. It appears that the National Residue Program samples only non-organic meat and poultry,” Richman said.
This isn’t the first time some of these drugs, including chloramphenicol and Ketamine, have been found in poultry. As reported by Bloomberg on June 22, the Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety sued Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the U.S., for advertising its chicken as “100% natural” even though USDA testing reported finding drug residues in Sanderson chicken samples.
Consumers aren’t pleased to learn that factory farm poultry brands mislead them. But they aren’t necessarily surprised either.
But it’s a whole different story when the brands they thought they could trust, turn out to be making false claims, too.
Are Diestel and Whole Foods misleading consumers?
Producers like Diestel, and retailers like Whole Foods, know consumers are willing to pay a premium for hormone-free, antibiotic-free turkeys from farms that have high animal-welfare standards.
But what happens when companies make claims that don’t live up to consumer expectations?
Diestel Turkey claims its birds live idyllic lives. On its website, the company says:
All of our whole-body Diestel turkeys are raised under our strict standards. We support our turkeys with a healthy environment, fresh mountain water, and the clean air from the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Our feed never contains fillers, our birds are never given growth stimulants or antibiotics, and we never make compromises when it comes to the quality of the feed.
Whole Foods gives Diestel Turkey its 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating standard, a rating intended to differentiate factory farm meat from pasture-raised. The rating not only sets high standards for “the comfort, physical safety and health of the animals,” but also prohibits the use of hormones and antibiotics.
The USDA testing suggests that Diestel is deceiving consumers about the use of antibiotics and other drugs on its farms. A nine-month investigation of Diestel Turkey Ranch by DxE suggests Diestel also deceives consumers not only about the use of antibiotics and hormones, but also about how the turkeys it sells are treated before being slaughtered for meat.
On its website, Diestel says:
We pay close attention to the health of our birds by spending time with them in the fields, observing their behaviors, and making sure they have the best environment possible.
But according to the complaint DxE filed against Diestel, the turkey producer bases those claims on one “picture-perfect” farm as its “poster child” farm—but raises most of its turkeys elsewhere, under industrial factory farm conditions.
And that picture-perfect farm is rated Step 5, even though most turkeys do not enjoy those Step 5 conditions.
In reality, DxE’s investigation found that the vast majority of the turkeys sold by Diestel are raised under very different conditions than those portrayed by the Diestel website. According to the complaint, the DxE investigation found:
• turkeys raised in over-crowded barns
• turkeys found languishing or dead
• turkeys suffering from excessive confinement
• turkeys trapped in feces that covered much of the barn floor, up to one-half foot deep
• turkeys suffering from swollen-shut eyes, swollen nostrils, open wounds, and/or bruises
• turkeys missing large patches of feathers as a result of pecking one another and/or de-feathering from extreme stress
• turkeys routinely subject to debeaking and/or beak-trimming
• turkeys laboring to breathe in an enclosed barn environment dense with ammonia and particles of dried feces and feathers
• as many as 7 percent of birds in a barn dying in a single week.
What’s a consumer to do? We’ve put together this Holiday Turkey Buying Guide that steers consumers in the direction of reliable sources of honestly marketed turkeys.
And as always, we recommend consumers take advertising and marketing claims with a grain of salt, until those claims can be verified by a third party.
In the meantime, we’re asking consumers to ask Whole Foods to stop selling Diestel Turkey products.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.