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Nov 032010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This Thanksgiving you’ll be confronted with dozens of claims and selling points about turkeys.

Before you buy, know your turkey terms (Photo: Whole Foods Market)

Most of these labels have specific, enforceable meanings. But it’s not always what you think. A “USDA certified Organic” turkey, for instance, will have been raised according to reams of U.S. Department of Agriculture rules about how it must be fed, kept — allowed “exercise,(and) freedom of movement” — and processed.

But the life of a certified Organic turkey won’t necessarily be substantially different from that of a conventionally raised one. Organic doesn’t equate to “humane,” in the regulation books or in real life.

Organically raised animals, though, won’t have been fed byproducts from other livestock operations, a key factor for consumers wanting protection from the cross-contamination that can occur when animals are fed animal products (the birds won’t have been exposed to dangerous prions from infected beef, for example). But these turkeys can get supplements, vitamins and amino acids from synthetic additives. Not to split feathers, but that might make a difference to someone.

Other turkey descriptors include the label “natural,” which means the turkey was not injected with preservatives or anti-microbials during processing, though it may not have led a particularly “natural” life.

It’s also worth knowing what labels you won’t see on poultry. The controversy over growth hormones used in the beef and dairy industries (and the many studies whether these hormones alter human growth) might leave an impression that growth hormones are an issue in the poultry business. But that’s not the case. The USDA has not authorized the use of hormones for poultry, so you needn’t search for a “no hormones” label. If you do see a “no hormones” claim, figure you’re being hoodwinked; such a label is against USDA guidelines, unless it’s accompanied with a statement that the government forbids these hormones already, which would be nonsensical.

As for antibiotics, the USDA does allow those in poultry operations, but not immediately before slaughter. The idea here is that antibiotic residue is flushed from the animal.

So, now that you’ve tasted the complexities. Let’s head into the Wild West of today’s supermarket to hunt down your bird, armed with these notes on the current turkey terminology:

1 – Fresh: This label comes with a little twist. You’d think the term “fresh” would mean the bird was recently slaughtered. But what it means under USDA guidelines is that the turkey has not been frozen, specifically that it’s not been stored below zero degrees, and that it’s been kept at above 26 degrees.

See the catch? From 0 to 25, it’s a no man’s land.

So in theory, a fresh turkey could have been in the cooler for awhile at 26 degrees, and not be all that impressively fresh anymore, though it’s doubtful that many big producers would risk keeping a lot of meat at chilly, but not safely frozen temps. All that the government decrees, however, is that a turkey labeled “fresh” cannot have been frozen.

We consulted Whole Food Markets on this matter, because the grocery chain promotes itself as a source for fresh Thanksgiving turkeys. Richard Atkin, Global Meat and Poultry Quality Assurance Specialist, explained that Whole Foods Market works with producers year round so it can align its needs, store by store, with the number of fresh turkeys that can be harvested in November, when producers work 24/7 to keep a steady flow of fresh birds available.

Consumers have been increasingly asking for fresh birds because “it helps the juiciness,” Atkin says. “Anytime you freeze a bird it runs the risk of becoming a little drier.”

Fresh has become so popular among Whole Foods’ clients, in fact, that the store offers many varieties, including Kosher and Heritage fresh turkeys (see below for more on Heritage turkeys and the Whole Foods Market’s A Bird for Every Budget for the gamut of turkeys available there.)

Aside from the temperature storage rules, a key feature of a “fresh” turkey is that there are no additives or food dyes allowed, according to the USDA. Those enter the picture when a turkey is processed into some other form (check those cold cuts for coloring), or sold as “pre-basted.” For processed turkeys, you’ll have to read the label to make sure you’re OK with the saline, water or chemicals that have been added to enrich the flavor and tenderness of the bird.

When the bird is fresh, it can be mostly au naturel, though it’s not strictly “natural” because that’s a different label (see below).

Environmentally speaking, a “fresh” bird has an edge on other types, because it’s less processed; and if it has spent only a short time chilling in the fridge then it has consumed less energy than a bird that’s been frozen for months.

You’ll pay more for fresh, according to 2009 government surveys in the range of .98 to 1.88 a pound, compared with .79 to 1.49 for frozen.

2 – Natural: While the term “natural” can be a scam on many food products, it actually carries a whiff of meaning here. Turkeys that are labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring agents or chemical preservatives (as defined by the USDA). For people with food dye and preservative sensitivities, this is an important assurance.

Furthermore, these turkeys must have been “minimally processed,” though they can still be roasted, smoked, frozen, fermented or dried. According to USDA rules, the label must also explain why the turkey is natural.

It’s important to remember, though, that this label dictates nothing about how a bird is raised; it only covers processing. So the “natural” part is a post-mortem feature, which some might say reveals how low the bar is for this designation.

3 – Organic: Here’s an opportunity to support a world that doesn’t rely on pesticides, though even this label does not guarantee that the animals were treated humanely.

Organic turkeys must be fed according to a list of rules in the National Organic Program (NOP). Their feed cannot contain “feed supplements or additives in amounts above those needed for adequate nutrition” (meaning they’re not supposed to be treated to super-growth experiments). It also must be free of “plastic pellets for roughage” and “feed formulas containing urea or manure” — rules that may say more about conventionally raised turkeys than they do organics.

Some of the other rules for certified Organic turkeys target their quality of life. They are supposed to enjoy “appropriate housing, pasture conditions, and sanitation practices to minimize the occurrence and spread of diseases and parasites” as well as “exercise, freedom of movement, and reduction of stress appropriate to the species.” In addition, their “pain and stress” should be kept to a minimum. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these rules are so general as to provide a gangplank for circumvention.

Still, organic is nearly the best you’ve got, label-wise, if you want to buy a bird that’s been fed a clean diet and kept in better than average conditions, that being a relative concept, and you’re shopping at a mainstream grocery store. You’ll pay more for organic than for bird that are simply “fresh” birds, around $3 a pound according to the 2009 USDA survey. Want to wring the most from that bird, look for an Organic bird that’s also “fresh.”

Organic turkeys remain a small part of the market, but a fast growing one. Since 1997, when 750 organic turkeys turned up in the USDA’s official tally of livestock produced in the U.S. (surely they forgot to count some farms), the number has grown to nearly 400,000 produced in 2008. That’s still dwarfed by the 5.9 billion conventional turkeys — yowser! — raised that year, but also probably underestimates the many organic turkeys raised on small farms that are organic in every way except they lack the official certification because it was too expensive.

4 – Free Roaming or Free Range: This sounds like the ultimate back-to-nature bird. If only that were true. Before you get excited about the Free Range label, you should know that the USDA rule for this one only requires that the birds “have access” to the outside.

The USDA guidelines decree that the turkeys must have “continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for over 51% of their lives, i.e., through their normal growing cycle.”

Producers in Northern climates are even asked to detail how the birds are allowed access to the outdoors during the winter, to try to assure they’re not kept in coops all season long.

Still, the USDA does not require that the birds actually make it outdoors, and stories abound about big producer houses with one or two small doors to the outside. The sad truth is that many conventionally farmed turkeys have been so successfully bred for volume that they’ve become giant birds with impaired mobility. Their access to the world would be greatly underutilized, even if they could find the door.

Furthermore, the government sets no “stocking density” limits on how many birds can be held within a certain space. The turkeys could be crammed together CAFO-style in a huge facility, and as long as aren’t dropping from some rampant illness, they’d pass inspection for this label.

5 – Pastured: Despite the problems with the Free Roaming or Free Range label, a turkey that actually is raised mainly outdoors is likely to be head and shoulders above its conventional cousins, both environmentally and health-wise. If the bird has grazed on grass and had room to roam, its meat will be rich in Omega oils and yes, perhaps tougher than you’re used to, but lean. The bird will have lived in a more natural setting, grown in ways unique to its breed and probably belonged to a farm where it’s manure was returned to the soil via grazing and the animals were able to walk around in the fresh air and sunshine.

The problem is we’re now entering the realm of unregulated labels. This great-sounding label isn’t an official label at all. The USDA notes that pastured poultry comes from farms where the birds are “raised on pasture but provided with shelters
that can be moved by hand or tractor” but it offers no stamp of certification to these pastured turkeys.

So these birds do not have the government stamp of approval, which may or may not matter to you. Ask the producer about how the birds are raised and processed (at an organic processing facility?). You may just find both a farmer friend, and a great pastured turkey over which you can toast to your health this Thanksgiving.

6 – Heritage Turkey – This is a term used to define turkeys belonging to heritage or heirloom breeds, such as Bronze, Narragannsett and Bourbon Reds, which carry on the

A Narragannsett Turkey.

characteristics of turkeys (and darker turkey meat) that pre-date the industrialization of turkey productions.

As defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which assisted the USDA in setting parameters for the label, a heritage turkey is raised in the historic open-range style, mates naturally and takes longer to mature (6 to 7 months) compared with commercial turkeys. Breeding hens and toms live several years, up to seven for hens and five for toms.

Breeders and conservationists want to save heritage or heirloom breeds, many of which are listed as endangered, for many reasons — to maintain the biodiversity that keeps breeds hardy, able to sustain themselves in outdoor conditions and withstand disease. They see dangers ahead in the wholesale co-opting of the commercial turkey system that relies almost entirely on one breed of turkey, the White Broadbreasted turkey, that’s been bred so intensively for breast volume and overall meat generation that it’s been rendered flightless and infertile.

These critics deride commercial turkey meat as inferior, or in the words of cookbook (Cooking for Comfort) author Marian Burros, as “tasteless and dry”. Taste a heritage bird, they say, and you will be sampling the holiday in a way that our ancestors did — or our relatives who remember the 1950s and 60s. The meat won’t fall off your fork, because it comes from an animal that roamed around, but it won’t be so bland it requires special basting, seasoning or the lately popular brining. (Conventional growers usually stab back at such statements, terming heritage turkeys “gamey” tasting.)

Currently, heritage turkeys mainly come from small or medium-sized farm operations. If you’re buying heritage, you’re most likely buying from the farmer directly and you’ve already checked out the operation, online or in discussion with the producer. But the numbers of heritage birds out there is growing; the breeding population topped 10,000 birds in 2006, up from just 1,335 in 1997.

Whole Foods Market sells Heritage turkeys, so does Mary’s Turkeys, which is based in California but sells in many states, and you can find other sources in your area by checking LocalHarvest.org.

Buying a Heritage breed bird from a reputable producer is a vote for biodiversity and independent farmers. Like owning a Prius or signing up for a Volt, it is as much a political statement as it is a consumer purchase.

You’ll be supporting a local food network and securing a turkey that was almost surely pastured and well treated. You’ll also be helping preserve diversity among farm animals, which may someday help preserve us.

Did you know that the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists several turkey breeds as threatened or critically endangered?

More about USDA labels and rules for poultry:

More about heritage turkeys:

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