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Women In Ag: Turkey Labels 101
August, to me, means prime fair time! In Minnesota, many county fairs have already occurred, but when I was growing up, our county fair was always mid-August. This was – and still is – followed up by the Minnesota State Fair in late August through Labor Day.
After 20 years of working the State Fair for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, you can bet I associate this big event with education – tons of education on all types of agriculture, including turkey production.
So in honor of all the fairs going on now and through the end of summer, I thought I’d share a few turkey-related labels that you often see or hear about.
Conventional turkeys are the type of turkey most Americans associate with Thanksgiving. The breed is typically the Broad-Breasted White, and these birds are raised for its higher breast meat yield. Conventional turkeys are raised inside barns. This allows farmers to control every aspect of the birds’ care – from temperature and airflow to feed and water. Did I mention predators? Raising turkeys indoors provides protection from predators, disease (which can come from rodents, wild birds, and other wildlife), and bad weather.
According to the National Turkey Federation (NTF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the term free range can be used to describe turkeys that have some access to the outdoors. A limited number of free-range turkeys are raised, mainly because of geographical limitations and climate. (Can you imagine free-range turkeys year-round in Minnesota? No way!) NTF says most free-range turkeys are raised for the holiday season.
USDA organic-certified turkeys must meet very strict guidelines on organic feed and free-range access to have this label. The USDA Certified Organic program allows no antibiotics to be used in turkey production.
This label refers to turkey breeds indigenous to the Americas, dating to early Colonial times. These breeds include the Beltsville Small White, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and White Holland. Heritage turkeys grow at a slower rate than conventional Broad-Breasted Whites, so these turkeys tend to be smaller with a slightly different flavor.
NO HORMONES (or HORMONE-FREE)
Hormones are not allowed in raising poultry – at all. Therefore, according to the USDA, the claim “No Hormones Added” cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” (In other words, this is just a marketing gimmick if you see it on a poultry label.)
There are several labels you’ll see regarding antibiotics, including “No Antibiotics Ever” and “Antibiotic Free.” It’s important to realize there are different markets for different turkey products and different production systems that work for a variety of farmers. Turkey production – like agriculture, as a whole – has never been a one-size-fits-all endeavor. While some farmers raise turkeys without antibiotics, others use antibiotics to treat and prevent illness and to suppress organisms that are potentially harmful. Also important, there is a withdrawal period that must be adhered to prior to any flock going to market to be processed. Plus, every turkey flock is tested on the farm prior to market to make sure there is no antibiotic residue in the birds. If any residue is detected, the entire flock is kept at the farm and NOT processed until further testing shows the meat is safe.
A product marked with an "Antibiotic-Free" or a “No Antibiotics Ever” label at the supermarket has not been given antibiotics at all for any reason during the course of that turkey’s life.
Do you have questions about any of these labels? If so, be sure to leave a comment, and I'll do my best to answer them!