Gobbler Gab: What You Need to Know About Turkeys

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/j_benson/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/j_benson/

The Butterball hotline was a classic moment on The West Wing, in which fictional President Josiah Bartlet calls Butterball to settle a turkey-cooking dispute. One question was answered, but what about where the turkey came from, why it’s labeled how it is, and what about the costs associated with raising different types of turkeys?

First up, labeling. The terms printed on the packaging have to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, and they are subject to federal regulations like a ban on the use of hormones in all poultry.

To be considered “fresh,” turkeys in this category cannot be stored at temperatures colder than 26 degrees Fahrenheit; they have to be “quick chilled” to somewhere between 26 and 40 degrees. The birds need to be refrigerated and used one to two days after purchase. Frozen turkeys are stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit and are rapidly frozen in a blast freezer for the highest level of safety.

For free-range and free-roaming birds, information about the housing conditions are provided when producers apply to use the “free-range” or “free-roaming” label. For 51 percent of their lives, the birds need to have continuous, uninterrupted access to the outdoors. Producers in Northern, harsh-winter climates are allowed to keep the turkeys in a coop during the winter, but they must state their location for this to be approved.

A minimally processed turkey is exactly what it sounds like. A traditional cooking or preservation process such as smoking, freezing, drying, or fermenting can occur and the label will still apply. Parts of the turkey can be separated from the whole and cut or ground. The processes cannot “fundamentally alter the raw product.”

Natural and all-natural options are those in which the turkey has not been treated with chemical preservatives or synthetic ingredients. Artificial flavoring or colors have not been added and the turkey cannot be more than minimally processed. For a producer to say that there are no antibiotics, proper documentation needs to be able to show antibiotics did not enter the feed or water for the birds. Antibiotics also may not appear in the intra-muscular system of the turkey.

The National Organic Program oversees all products labeled organic, including turkeys. An on-site audit occurs and the producer’s facilities are inspected to ensure that all rules for the organic program are being followed. Any company that handles or processes the food along the way needs to meet organic standards, as well.

The American Farm Bureau Federation predicts the cost of Thanksgiving dinner each year. For 2013, the average price of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 is $49.04, or less than $5 per person. The price dropped 44 cents from 2012, and the price for a 16-pound whole turkey declined by 47 cents to land at $21.76 this year.

How much you end up paying for your turkey of choice depends on the type you want to purchase. The USDA released turkey price data for the week ended November 15, and depending on size and gender, a frozen turkey was $1.03 to $1.04 per pound. Fresh turkeys were approximately $1.27 per pound. Fresh organic averaged $3.18 a pound, and a pound of the frozen variety was about $2.95. Antibiotic fresh and frozen average prices were $2.23 and $1.93, respectively. There was not enough data on free-range turkeys for the USDA to provide pricing information.

The National Turkey Federation says that overall, the turkey business has been booming. Turkey consumption in the United States has more than doubled since 1970, and the production value of turkeys in 2011 was $18 billion. The top five turkey-producing states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, and Virginia.

The type of turkey can vary beyond fresh, frozen, organic, and antibiotic free, as well, but in a very limited scope. The Broad Breasted White turkey is the most popular in the U.S., according to a USDA fact sheet. But before 1934, the turkey as we know it today did not exist — it began after cross-breeding. The Beltsville Small White is a breed that then went on to become the Broad Breasted White.

Heritage turkeys and the heritage turkey movement are designed to bring consumers back to the more traditional turkey. Turkeys with the heritage label are closer to wild turkeys and are costlier to raise. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture provided information on heritage turkeys in 2011, and the price per pound then could be as high as $10 per pound.

Investing Insights: Where Will Home Depot Go Post-Earnings?