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Beware of Fancy ‘Heritage’ Turkey Imitators This Thanksgiving

Heritage turkeys, known for their robust flavor, small breasts and prices that can exceed $10 per pound, have been steadily gaining in popularity. They’ve even landed on the National Restaurant Association’s Top 20 Food Trends for the year. But Thanksgiving hosts looking to wow their guests with an unusual, flavorful bird may need to remain alert. Imitators are also increasingly popular with grocery chains. The real thing, experts say, is worth the additional legwork to find.

Heritage varieties have a more natural build than commercial turkeys, with more dark meat. These birds can run, fly and even reproduce naturally, allowing them to live more comfortable lives than their top-heavy commercial cousins. The additional time and labor required to raise such birds is reflected in the price. Heritage turkeys from White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, sell for as much as $125 each online. “The fact that they’re able to run around in the pasture, they have more muscle, which also creates a stronger and more pronounced flavor” said James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Virginia Willis, who has been buying White Oak’s birds for several years.

This Thanksgiving, Americans will carve into an estimated 45 million turkeys. The vast majority will be the commercial Broad Breasted Whites (BBW): born of artificial insemination, raised in dark, crowded barns while being fed a soy, corn and antibiotic-based based diet for the months they’re kept alive. Eventually, they get so top-heavy that their legs struggle to hold them up. The price of such a commodity bird was $1.58 per pound in 2017, the last year for which data are available, according to the USDA.

Retailers, perhaps noting the vast chasm in price between commercial and heritage offerings, have recently begun offering something else: the “heirloom” turkey. The term, which is not regulated by the USDA, has been met with skepticism by heritage enthusiasts. These birds are bred from a range of varieties, including a predecessor to the BBW, giving the meat a taste and texture that is more familiar to Americans.

With a name reminiscent of heirloom tomatoes found at the farmers market or the heritage pork on the menu at a fancy restaurant, some consumers may think that the $2.99/pound price tag—in the same ballpark as organic or free-range—indicates a turkey of origins similar to that of a heritage bird. But it doesn’t.

“That’s just an adjective,” Patrick Martins, founder and president of Heritage Foods USA, said of the heirloom designation. “It’s like saying ‘yummy.’”

For those looking to avoid an impostor, be sure to examine labels closely. (“Heritage farmer” is another oft-cited misnomer.) This is even true at Whole Foods. Only locations in the company’s Southern Pacific and Pacific Northwest regions will carry heritage birds this year, all from Pitman Family Farms in California. The retailer has stopped carrying turkeys from White Oak as it did in prior years. Other regions will carry only heirlooms.

“This holiday season, every Whole Foods Market region will have either heirloom or heritage turkeys, as we know our customers are increasingly looking for specialty birds,” the company said in a statement to Bloomberg.

Other sellers, meanwhile, are increasing their orders of heritage birds from last year.

High-end meat purveyor D’Artagnan said it saw growth of about 15 percent this year in heritage turkey sales, but noted that the birds account for only a small portion of their total turkey sales. It’s carrying Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds, starting at $159.99.

“Every year, we’ve upped how many heritage turkeys we’ve purchased,” said Pete Molinari, head of fresh meats and seafood at Eataly USA. Depending on the location, his stores carry a Standard Bronze, a Kelly Bronze and a “mutt” of several heritage breeds, as Molinari describes it. “A lot more people are starting to realize the flavor,” he said.

For those unable to find a heritage bird at a local market, D’Artagnan, Heritage USA and White Oak sell offerings online. Orders are closed for Thanksgiving, according to White Oak owner Will Harris, but there’s plenty of time to get one for Christmas.