Turkey Burgers Go Antibiotic-Free as Butterball Jumps on Trend

  • Largest U.S. turkey processor rolls out new brand of meat
  • Aims for $100 million in sales within three to four years

Health-conscious grillers will be pleased to see there’s one step missing from their turkey burgers this summer: antibiotics.

Butterball LLC, the biggest U.S. turkey processor, is rolling out a new line of ground meat that’s produced from birds never given the medicine. The “Farm to Family” brand is already making its way to supermarkets, and the company is aiming to generate $100 million in retail sales over the next three to four years, according to Bill Klump, the chief marketing officer of the Garner, North Carolina-based company.

Butterball adds to a growing number of poultry companies responding to changing consumer tastes by seeking to reduce antibiotic use. Perdue Farms Inc. in February said it was transitioning to chicken and turkey products that used “no antibiotics ever.” Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat processor, said last year it planned to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in chickens by September 2017. Fast-food chains are also shifting, with McDonald’s Corp.’s announcing in March 2015 a move to stop serving chicken raised with some antibiotics within two years.

More consumers are opting for the meat amid growing concerns about antibiotic-resistant superbugs in people, a problem partially blamed on widespread use of the drugs in farm animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates these so-called superbugs attack more than 2 million people in the U.S. annually, with about 23,000 dying.

There is demand “out there specifically for turkey that is unmet,” Ivan Arrington, Butterball’s director of new product innovation, category and consumer and shopper insights, said in a telephone interview.

Paying Up

Demand is great enough for the antibiotic-free meat that consumers are willing to pay a premium. In the week ended Thursday, 93 percent lean ground turkey was advertised at an average $3.44 a pound at retail, while specialty ground turkey, from birds raised on vegetarian diets and without antibiotics, sold for $3.90, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows.

As much as 10 percent of the Butterball’s ground turkey products will be under the antibiotic-free brand in the next 12 months, Arrington said. The burger patties and ground turkey products will be available in the southeast, northeast and Midwest. Additional items will be added in 2017, Klump said. The closely-held company is jointly owned by Seaboard Corp. and Maxwell Farms LLC.

While Butterball has already cut antibiotics used to promote animal growth from all of its turkeys, the birds raised for the new brand are never given any form of antibiotics from the time they are hatched, according to Alice Johnson, a senior vice president. Any turkeys that become sick are treated and used for the company’s conventional product lines, she said.

Cargill Inc. also eliminated the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in turkeys at the end of 2015, spokesman Mike Martin said in an e-mail on Thursday. The company has had turkey produced from birds raised without antibiotics “for a number of years,” he said.

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