Meat quality – what do labels really mean? By

With the holidays nearing, many families will be preparing special meals that will likely feature turkey as the main dish. For the best meat quality, what criteria should be considered when buying a turkey?

In the poultry world, there are different criteria and labeling that are important to consumers, but many are misleading. The only grade that consumers will see on poultry in stores is Grade A, but other labeling may include words like “fresh”, “premium”, “cage-free” or “organic”. These labels are often marketing terms rather than safety or meat quality related. Those are important to some who care about the ethical treatment of the turkey or its diet, but good to know which have real meaning and which do not. For instance, the term “premium” may imply that the meat quality is a higher grade or healthier. But this actually has no meaning because poultry is not graded by the USDA with terms such as those for beef (“prime”, “choice” and “select”) (reference1). Those concerned about the turkey’s treatment or living conditions may look for labels such as “cage-free” or “free-range”. “Cage-free” has no meaning because turkeys are never raised in cages. “Free-range” is more meaningful based on USDA guidelines about housing conditions and outdoor access, depending on the climate (reference2).

Do these labels impact the price and meat quality? Because many of these packaging terms are more for marketing, most consumers pay extra for nothing (reference3). But it depends on preferences and what quality means to you – if you feel better knowing that the turkey had some “free roaming” time or that it was raised and fed organically – you are likely willing to pay more. USDA Organic is probably the most legitimate label because only products certified under the USDA’s requirements can carry the seal. But to note, these regulations do not address food safety or nutrition (reference4).

Food safety concerns such as contaminants and additives are a separate subject. Some concerns in this area are residues from drugs (veterinary), environmental pollutants (pesticides), or biological toxins (pathogens, mycotoxins). Examples of hazards specific to poultry include antibiotics, hormones and pathogens among others. There are standard food safety measures in place in the processing and production of poultry and other meats (reference5). However, those standards don’t routinely cover all named risks, they mainly focus on hygiene factors.

As far as nutrition in turkey meat, most turkeys have about the same, regardless of a brand or label. Most turkeys live and eat similarly unless explicitly stated otherwise. That is where it comes back to labeling and consumer preferences. Even if we understand that many labels do not have much meaning when it comes to meat quality, we may still choose one over another based on labeling, or have a brand preference that might be based purely on familiarity (for example, it was the turkey your mother always bought).  

The bottom line when considering which turkey to buy is that most are the same nutritionally, but if certain criteria are very important to you, be sure to understand exactly what the labels mean, or if they have no meaning at all.

photo credit: Alison Marras, Unsplash

  • 8 November, 2018