Turkey Safety and Labeling – What Do Food Labels and Terms Mean?

Learn more about American rules on turkey terms, such as inspection, grade, antibiotics, hormones, additives, allergens, irradiation, dates, and more.

Turkey is a popular choice for Thanksgiving dinner and often serves as the main dish for Christmas as well as many other meals throughout the year. But what happens to this popular poultry before it reaches the shopping cart? What do all those turkey terms mean? Learn more about the USDA requirements for turkeys in order to make the best choice for one’s own holiday meal.

Turkey Terms

Several producers may label turkeys with terms that might not be understood by shoppers. A few examples include:

“Free Range” or “Free Roaming” means that the live turkey was allowed access to the outdoors.
A “hen” is a female turkey and tends to be smaller than a “tom,” or male, turkey.
A “young” turkey is less than eight months old.

Inspection and Grading of Turkey in America

Turkeys and their internal organs destined for American retail stores are inspected for evidence of disease by either the federal government or a state system with equivalent standards. According to the USDA, the “Inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” seal indicates the following:

The turkey is wholesome
It is properly labeled according to the USDA rules
The turkey is not adulterated (In case you are scratching your head or perhaps smiling about this one, adulterated poultry contain antibiotic residue above the allowed limits)

Not all turkeys in the United States are graded. Some turkey farmers pay the USDA to grade their poultry for quality. People will typically only see grade A shield on turkeys in a retail store. In order to make the cut for grade A, the turkey must meet the following requirements:

Virtually free of defects, discolorations, and feathers
No broken bones in turkeys sold on the bone
No tears in the skin or exposed flesh in turkeys sold with the skin
A good amount of fat lies under the skin
The poultry is meaty and fully fleshed

Antibiotics, Hormones, and Additives in Turkeys in the U.S.

The USDA has not approved the use of any hormones in turkeys sold for consumption in the United States.

USDA does allow certain limits of antibiotics to be given to poultry for disease prevention and/or to increase the efficiency of feeding the turkeys. In order to ensure that no antibiotic residue is present, the turkeys must be “withdrawn” from the antibiotics for a minimum amount of time before slaughter. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) enforces the legal limits of antibiotics by randomly sampling raw poultry to test for residue amounts and condemning any adulterated turkey.

Additives are not allowed in a turkey that is labeled “fresh” or “minimally processed.” Fresh indicates that the temperature of the turkey has never been below 26ºF, while “minimally processed” means that the turkey has been cut into pieces or parts.

Turkeys that are labeled “processed” should have additives listed on the ingredient list from the most to the least. “Basted” or “self-basted” turkeys may be injected with approved solutions up to a maximum of 3% solution. Marinated or basted turkeys might contain a variety of ingredients such as:

Stock (liquid in which a meat is cooked that is often used for soups, gravy, or sauces)
Flavor enhancers

Examples of additives that may be found in processed turkey also include:

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
Sodium erythorbate

Allergens and Turkeys in the United States

The USDA requires food manufacturers to list common allergens in simple language on the packaging of any packaged food regulated by the FDA, except for fresh meat and fresh produce, and some highly refined oils. The eight most common allergens that fall under this ruling include:

Tree nuts

Those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or who are maintaining a gluten-free diet may wish to find a turkey that is gluten-free. Some manufacturers label their products as certified gluten-free. Others may provide that information about gluten on their web site or by contacting the company via phone or mail. Cross-contamination may be possible if a turkey is processed on a line that is not dedicated free of that particular allergen.

Irradiation of Turkeys in America

Turkeys that are sold for consumption in the U.S. that have been irradiated must be labeled with the international radiation logo and one of the following two statements on the packaging: “Treated with Irradiation” or “Treated by Irradiation.” Irradiation (1.5 to 3.0 kiloGray) of raw, fresh, or frozen packaged poultry has been permitted by the USDA since 1992. Treating a packaged turkey by irradiation may help reduce foodborne illnesses by controlling certain bacteria that may cause a person to become sick if the poultry is undercooked or prepared improperly.

Dates on Turkeys

The federal government does not regulate dates on products, but many stores and processors may voluntarily label turkeys with a date:

“Sell by” means that the store should only display the product until the date listed.
“Best if used by” means that the product will have optimal flavor and/or quality until that date but does not indicate a purchase date or date of safety.
“Use by” means that the product will be at peak quality until this date. A store may still sell foods after this date provided it is still wholesome.

Labeling Basics for Turkeys Sold in the United States

Shopping for a turkey for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time of the year might seem a bit intimidating with all the terms and labels. Equipped with basic information about turkey labeling, smart shoppers can make a more informed choice when choosing a turkey for a special holiday dinner or any other time of the year.

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