The annual decision of buying a turkey for thanksgiving is done by millions of people. For most it requires a trip through the frozen bins at the supermarket, for others a visit to the local butcher shop to have the fresh bird, even less will seek out local farmers which have taken orders months ago, and finally those who purchase via the internet. So which is it? What did we eat this year? There are so many choices and price ranges. First lets start off with the standard commercial birds.
Most commercial turkeys are raised similarly to chicken. They are a single breed, the large breasted Holland White; this bird dominates the market and is raised in large crowded outdoor pens. They are typically fed a corn based diet with a soy protein mixed in. This premixed "ration" has vitamins, minerals, and a variety of possible antibiotics including tetracycline, various sulfates, bactracin depending on the grower or company that supplies the grower with feed. Many farms are vertically integrated with the grower being supplied the birds and feed from the processing company. But there are also small farmers that use many of the pre-mixed rations as well. The goal is rapid growth. The price of these birds is consistantly low. Hanaford supermarket was offering a turkey for $.40 per pound. Others are giving away turkeys with a purchase of a certain monetary amount of other groceries. But not all supermarket birds are the same either. Many offer fresh or organic, quasi niche market birds on the days just before Thanksgiving.
Natural - No added ingredients, after slaughter ( has nothing to do with feeding methods)
Naturally raised- This may mean a few different things but typically the bird was fed a ration that had no antibiotics or animal byproducts such as bone meal.
Naturally enhanced- Has a solution of salt, turkey broth up to about 10 % and often "natural" flavorings.
Enhanced- Turkey that is pumped with varying amounts of salt, water, sodium phosphates and flavorings. Most contain around a 12% solution but I have seen a higher and lower amounts.
"Super" Enhanced- Think Butterball, bird is enhanced with water, salt, sodium phosphate, but also hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed vegetable protein. These are basically nicer ways of describing MSG (monosodium glutimate) which are typically frowned upon by consumers.
All added ingredients must be listed on the label but the meaning of those ingredients is up to the consumer to research.
Fresh- This means the bird was slightly frozen quickly after slaughter but not frozen solid and should not require a thaw out.
Frozen- Bird is blast frozen right after slaughter and stored at 0 to -20F. Can be stored like this for many months without much harm.
Organic- Bird was raised without antibiotics, fed all organic ingredients, has more space to roam etc. ( organic rules are listed on the USDA web site)
As far as pricing goes, the least expensive is the basic naturally enhanced bird, next would be the phosphated bird and then the super enhanced product. Fresh birds are typically twice the price of regular frozen and organic were at least three times the price.
Brand names for supermarket birds may include the forementioned Butterball, Jennie-O, Perdue, etc. Many brands are actually owned by much larger meat companies such as Hormel , Tyson, Smithfield.
The top turkey producing states are listed below in order of production.
So what about the local butcher or specialty market? Most small butchers will sell a single brand that they consider quality. Often a non- enhanced small market bird. Brand names such as Jaindle or Bell and Evans, Eberling provide a quality that is considered higher than the larger market birds. The local butcher also provides cooking instruction and advice on how much to order. Small butchers are more likely to sell a variety of naturally raised birds and even local, very small market birds. Fleisher's of Kingston, near where I live prides themselves in knowing the farm where the turkeys are from and can guarantee the way they are raised. Some exclusive markets will offer heirloom breeds too.
For those who frequent farmer's markets there may be a poultry farmer who raises a few turkeys. These would need to be ordered in advance. The sizes may be varied and the price will be high but the fact that you personally supported a local farmer and you know exactly where the bird came from is something you can brag about to family and friends. Many small farmers are also selling "heritage" breed turkeys. Heritage breeds are those which have fallen out of popularity for one reason or another. They often require a longer growing time but have a deeper, richer flavor. Some breeds I've seen are the Standard Bronze, Blue Slate, Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Royal Palm.
Internet sales of turkeys are another way to purchase niche market style birds. There are hundreds of small market producers of heirloom, naturally raised, organic turkeys. They tend to be expensive and shipping is another part of it. Expense can be quite high for example a "WillieBird" organic turkey from Williams and Sonoma is $116 for a 18 lb bird. Other sites list birds from anywhere from $3.00 to $6.00 per lb. They come in styro boxes and shipping can be expensive also.
To avoid all of this decision making you could simplt take your guests out for dinner....but thats just the chef in me talking.
The world of turkey products seems to grow every year and its up to the consumer to really think about the purchase ahead of time. The good thing is you have more options than ever before.