Your turkey’s label contains words that are regulated by the USDA, as well as marketing buzz-words. The goal of the USDA is to protect the consumer from misleading marketing terms, but often the truth get’s lost behind appealing words. Tony’s executive chef, Mick, explains the truth behind the labeling terms you’ll see when shopping for your Thanksgiving Turkey.
Turkey Labeling Terms
Turkeys chilled below 0° F must be labeled frozen.
Turkeys may be labeled as fresh if they have never been chilled below 26° F.
Turkeys that have been chilled below 26°, but not below 0° may be labeled as “not previously frozen.”
“Basted or Self-Basting”
Also known as ‘enhanced’, this is a process of injecting meats with a water-based solution of flavorings and chemicals.
*Notes: The goal is to increase flavor, juiciness and the weight of the bird. Approximately 70% of the poultry (and pork) on the market today is ‘brined’ or ‘enhanced’. Tony’s never sells enhanced meats.
A minimally processed product containing no added or artificial ingredients.
Premium birds that are processed and inspected under rabbinical supervision and treated with a salt water brine.
“Hen or Tom Turkey”
Hen turkeys are female birds, usually weighing from 8-16 pounds. Tom turkeys are males, usually weighing from 18 to 32 pounds. There was a time when hen turkeys offered more white meat, but no longer – the only real difference is size.
To add the words “Free Range” to the label, a grower must provide small door in the henhouse to a fenced outdoor yard.
*Notes: This labeling / marketing term has nothing to do with quality or taste. While a few birds may choose to venture outdoors, the vast majority do not, but all can be labeled as Free Range. Access to the outdoors is appealing in the correct setting, the unfortunately reality is that it typically leads to increased stress and mortality due to disease, insects, and temperature. While ‘Free Range’ poultry can be a special product of excellent quality, most companies simply use the term as a marketing tool to gain bigger profits, not better poultry.
These labeling laws tend to get very complicated and are concerned with items such as land and water use, feed certification, and the use of ionizing radiation.
*Notes: While organic farming can be a great thing, the labeling term has no bearing on quality, flavor, juiciness, nutrition, safety or wholesomeness. The use of hormones is not allowed in any poultry raised in the USA.
“Premium Brand Turkeys”
Many producers go above and beyond to produce premium turkeys that consistently offer superior quality. Most of these producers claim that the difference between their turkeys and others is in the quality of the feed their turkeys receive. *Note: At Tony’s, we only handle premium branded products.
Turkeys that are less than 8 months old at time of harvest can be labeled as ‘Young Turkeys’. Most turkeys reach market size at 5 months.
Most turkeys are washed and chilled quickly in ice-cold water, and since the bird can absorb some of this water in the process (1-3% by weight), the USDA requires this be disclosed on a label. In response to this, some have taken to air-chilling poultry, which increases
price. *Note: I (Mick) have tasted the two side by side and cannot discern a difference, so it’s not something I am willing to pay more for.
Mick’s Thoughts on Turkey…
- Be cautious, package labeling can be very deceptive and usually leads to mistruths that many incorrectly accept as fact or even common knowledge (for instance the term ‘Free Range’)
- When it comes to poultry, fresh is the best whenever possible. Freezing causes expansion, which breaks down cell walls, allowing the natural juices to drain away more freely when thawed.
- While brining can add great flavor to a bird, I strongly suggest avoiding pre-brined birds from a processor as they are usually injected with artificial flavorings, flavorings and lots of water, gaining 15% or more in weight. I am a strong proponent of brining poultry, but only with homemade brines with natural ingredients. We offer my natural brine recipes prepackaged in our markets, or make your own with a recipe from our website.
- Terms such as ‘Free Range’, ‘Organic’, ‘Kosher’, or ‘Air Chilled’ have absolutely nothing to do with quality, taste or performance at the table.
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