Food Safety and Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Food Safety Features
October 1999

Turkey - From Farm To Freezer

"How long can a turkey be kept in the freezer?" This question is often heard by the food safety specialists answering USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. Although the optimum freezing time for quality -- best flavor and texture -- is 1 year, consumers are usually surprised to learn that, from a safety standpoint, frozen turkeys may be kept indefinitely in a freezer.

Callers ask hundreds of other questions about turkeys – from the time they are hatched on the farm until they make it home to the freezer.

Although turkey is enjoyed year round, the peak time for buying, cooking, and storing whole turkeys is the November and December holiday season. This is the time we see a large increase in the number of whole turkeys for sale in our local grocery stores.

To ensure that the supply of whole birds is adequate to meet consumer holiday demands, each year during the month of May, millions of turkey eggs are put into incubators. After about 4 weeks of incubation, a baby turkey (poult) is hatched. The poults are then moved from the hatcheries to barns that are environmentally controlled, providing maximum protection from predators, disease, and bad weather. For the next 16 to 19 weeks (depending on the desired market weight), these turkeys roam freely around the barn, eating their way through many pounds of feed (consisting mainly of corn and soybean meal along with a supplement of vitamins and minerals).

Hormones are not given to turkeys. Antibiotics may be given to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency. When antibiotics are used, government regulations require a "withdrawal" period to ensure birds are free from any residues prior to slaughter. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) randomly samples turkeys at slaughter to test for residues. Under the Federal meat and poultry inspection laws, any raw meat or poultry shown to contain residues above established tolerance levels is considered adulterated and must be condemned.

When turkeys reach the desired weight, they are taken from the farm to the slaughter plant. FSIS veterinarians look at the live birds, checking for any that may be sick or injured. As the process continues, each turkey carcass, along with its giblets, is inspected to check for disease or contamination. Any questionable birds are pulled off the line for closer scrutiny.

FSIS requires each turkey plant to have Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Every plant employee uses the SSOPs to be sure that any equipment, employee hands, tools, machines, and packaging that touch turkeys or giblets are clean and protected from dangerous chemicals or materials.

To prevent foodborne hazards, FSIS also requires each turkey plant to have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. This requires each turkey plant to analyze the processes by which it produces whole turkeys, turkey parts, turkey giblets, and other turkey products. Each production procedure is studied to find any food safety hazard that is likely to occur and to eliminate that possibility. (Currently, large and small plants are under HACCP. Very small plants, with fewer than 10 employees or annual sales of less than $2.5 million, will be under HACCP by January 25, 2000.)

FSIS experts in food safety provide technical information to turkey plants about food hazards and how to prevent them. FSIS veterinarians and inspectors check every day to see that the SSOPs and the HACCP plan are being carefully followed.

Turkeys are inspected for wholesomeness and randomly tested for generic Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Although not mandatory, grading may also be done.

Turkeys continue through the processing either as whole birds or in parts. They are frequently washed and kept chilled throughout the entire process to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Whole birds are chilled in ice, water, or in a mixture of ice and water.

Those to be sold fresh are quick-chilled to 40 F or lower, but must not go below a temperature of 26 F. Fresh turkeys should be refrigerated and used within 1 to 2 days from purchase, or they can be frozen for safe keeping.

Those to be sold frozen are rapidly frozen in blast freezers. The commercial blast freezer quickly takes the turkey to a freezing temperature, ensuring optimum safety and quality. They are then stored in freezers at 0 F or below. Both fresh and frozen turkeys are transported in refrigerated trucks to their destination.

After purchase, frozen turkeys should be placed in a freezer until ready to be thawed. There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey:

Raw turkey skin color is off white to a cream color. The color under the skin can range from pink to lavender or blue, depending on the amount of fat just under the skin.

Although there is normally very little distinguishable difference in the quality and nutrition of turkeys, understanding labeling definitions can help consumers make informed decisions and choose a turkey that best meets their particular needs.

Labeling Definitions

BASTED or SELF-BASTED – Bone-in poultry products (such as whole birds) that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock, or water, plus spices, flavor enhancers, and other approved substances must be labeled as "basted" or "self-basted". The maximum added weight of approximately 3% solution before processing is included in the net weight on the label. Labels must include a statement identifying the total quantity and common or usual name of all ingredients in the solution, e.g., "Injected with approximately 3% of a solution of _____________ (list of ingredients)."

When using the terms "basted" or "self-basted" on boneless poultry products (such as turkey breasts and roasts), the solution is limited to 8% of the weight of the raw poultry before processing.

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING – In order to use these terms on a label, producers must demonstrate to USDA that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

FRESH POULTRY – Turkeys to be sold as "fresh" must be stored at a temperature no lower than 26 F.

FROZEN POULTRY – Turkeys sold as "frozen" must be stored at 0 EF or below.

FRYER-ROASTER TURKEY – A young turkey, usually less than 16 weeks of age and of either sex.

HEN or TOM TURKEY – The sex designation of "hen" (female) or "tom" (male) turkey is optional on the label and is an indication of size rather than tenderness.

KOSHER – "Kosher" may be used only on the labels of turkeys that are prepared under Rabbinical supervision.

MINIMAL PROCESSING – Minimally processed could include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting; (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole turkey into parts or grinding of the turkey.

NATURAL – Turkey containing no artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient and is minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled "natural." The label must explain the use of the term "natural" (e.g., no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).

NO ANTIBIOTICS – The term "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for poultry products if the producer sufficiently documents to FSIS that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

NO HORMONES – Hormones are not allowed in raising poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

ORGANIC – The term "organic" has not yet been defined by the USDA, although the Department is currently working on a definition. Until the definition is final, USDA is permitting certain meat and poultry products to be labeled "certified organic by (name of certifying entity)." The label must be pre-approved by USDA and the claim must meet certain basic criteria. The certifying entity must have standards that define what constitutes an "organically produced" product and a system for ensuring that the products meet those standards.

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555; Washington, DC area, (202) 720-3333; TTY: 1 (800) 256-7072. It is staffed by home economists, registered dietitians, and food technologists weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, year round. An extensive selection of food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.

The media may call Diane Van, Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, at (202) 720-5604.

Information is also available from the FSIS Web site:


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For Further Information Contact:
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