Tidbits about turkey

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching and for most people that means thinking about what size turkey you are going to purchase to feed family and friends. In preparation for the holiday you might be interested in some turkey trivia from the National Turkey Foundation, it could also make for good dinner table conversation.

About 250 million turkeys are raised by 25 turkey farming groups across the country. This results in 7 billion pounds of turkey per year or about 16 pounds of turkey/person/year. Turkey is the fourth consumed animal protein and 36 percent of consumers enjoy turkey at least once per week.

Generally, hens which average about 15 pounds in weight, are sold as whole birds, whereas toms, average weight of 40 pounds, are processed for products such as turkey cutlets, sausage, hot dogs and deli meats.

With improvements in genetics, better feed formulation and best management practices, it takes from 14 weeks (hens) to 18 weeks (toms) for turkeys to reach slaughter weight.

Now when it comes to purchasing your turkey, you may have some questions about the terminology used on the label. In general the terms fall into three categories relating to quality, regulatory and production claims. The United States Department of Agriculture strictly defines and approves all labels on turkey products before the product can

be packaged.

Additionally, the Food Safety and Inspection Service monitors label usage and product formulation to assure adherence to the regulations.

So what do the different terms on labels mean? Let’s look at these based on the above.

Quality information:

≤ Grades are based on uniform standards developed by USDA and are voluntary in nature. Buyers must request and pay for product grading. The majority of product sold at the retail level is Grade A, which is the highest quality. Birds with a B or C grade are usually used for other processed types of turkey products.

Regulatory information:

≤ Natural refers to how the animal is processed not raised. In this case, processing will not alter the product and it contains no artificial ingredients or added color. The label must state what the meaning of “natural” is such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”

≤ Fresh means whole poultry and/or cuts that have never been below 26 degrees (the temperature at which turkey freezes). This term cannot be used if the product contains sodium/potassium nitrate/nitrite or has a brine concentration of 10 percent or more.

≤ Organic means that it complies with all USDA Organic Labeling Standards

≤ Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) — USDA guidance allows negative claims (non GMO or no GE ingredients) when products contain no GM ingredients. The law does not deem an animal genetically modified because if consumed GM feed. USDA will allow negative claims to let consumers know if meat derived from poultry has not been fed GM feed.

Production claims:

≤ Cage free — turkeys roam freely inside large barns with constant access to food and water and are protected from extreme weather and predators. They are never raised in cages.

≤ Free range — turkeys roam freely inside large barns but have the option of outdoor access. They must have “continuous free access to the outdoors” for over 51 percent of their lives. These birds are also considered cage free.

≤ Conditional antibiotic use — certain antibiotics are safe and allowed to be used. To clearly let the consumer know how antibiotics are used, labels such as “no antibiotics used for growth promotion — antibiotics only used for treatment and prevention of illness” can be used. May not use “antibiotic free” if any antibiotics have ever been used, even to treat a sick bird.

≤ No antibiotics ever/antibiotic free — sufficient documentation available to prove antibiotics have never been used through the lifespan.

≤ No hormones; raised without hormones; no steroids — hormones and steroids are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” or “no steroids” cannot be used on the label unless it is followed by a statement saying “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones/steroids.”

Hopefully this will help decode some of the wording used on food labels when it comes to selecting your bird this Thanksgiving. But that is just the start, for more information on turkey and for recipes for all those leftovers visit http://serveturkey.org/.

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Sharon McDonald is an

Extension Educator.