Organic whole turkeys will be butchered, packaged, distributed, purchased and roasted by the thousands over the next 30 days all across the USA. The average MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader (whether you're a commercial livestock producer, hobby farmer, or housewife) will already have their mind made up that they are only interested in organic turkeys (or a least a good quality non-GMO fed pastured raised bird). The real question, for most of us, is "fresh or frozen?". This post will help you decide which is best - whether you're raising, selling, or just eating turkey this year.
First, let's start with some definitions. According to the USDA, a turkey that is labeled as "fresh" must have never been stored at less than 26 degrees Fahrenheit. You and I may disagree with this definition, but the USDA isn't about to change their ruling. A frozen turkey, therefore, is a turkey that has been stored at less than 26 degrees Fahrenheit for at least some time.
For the average consumer, "fresh" is a positive word. It makes us think of springtime, flowers, and not getting food poisoning. So, naturally, there's a pretty big market for fresh organic turkeys. The real problem, however, for most small organic turkey farms and even larger organic turkey companies is that a truly "fresh" turkey (say, one in your refrigerator at 38 degrees Fahrenheit) has a very short shelf life of perhaps a little more than about a week. This would mean that if the "fresh" turkeys eaten in this country every year were truly "fresh," they would all have to be butchered, packaged, distributed, and sold in a very short period of time - too short, in fact, to be logistically feasible. By "faux-freezing" the birds at 26 degrees Fahrenheit they are able to store "fresh" turkeys for six weeks or more.
In contrast, frozen turkeys are always frozen at their peak or freshness and then thawed just in time for Thanksgiving. There is theoretically some potential for cell structure damage when any meat is frozen but for the typical consumer, there's not a lot of objective difference between meat that has been frozen and meat that has not. It's more of an issue of perception than objective or qualitative differences.
What's the real takeaway?
For the farmer, it's pretty clear that it only really makes sense to sell frozen turkeys if you want to stay sane and not run the risk or your product going bad or disappointing your customer with a "fresh" bird that is rock hard to the touch. There were years when I remember working packaging, sorting, and delivering hundreds of turkeys in just a few days time and I can testify that it simply isn't worth the stress. One night I remember staying up until 4 am packaging birds only to then have to get up at 6 am to deliver them. I was literally risking my life to be able to offer a fresh bird!
Today, I now run a small online grass fed and organic meat and poultry company and we now only offer a whole organic turkey that ships frozen with dry ice (at -109 degrees Fahrenheit!) to our customers all around the country. We've chosen not to to offer fresh turkeys anymore and it was the right decision.
For the consumer, I think the decision is just as easy. Who wants a bird that has been sitting in a quasi-frozen state for weeks on end? In this case, it's pretty clear that frozen organic turkeys are almost always the fresher choice.
David Maren is a Christian, husband, father, and founder of Tendergrass Farms - an online meats shop with a vision of sustaining family farmer by creating distribution channels for them to thrive economically. Tendergrass Farms offers a wide variety of grass fed beef, organic pork, organic chicken, organic turkey, organic lard, and organic leaf lard.
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