Turkey Investigation

Reporter: Helen Wellings

From the sheds until slaughter -- at just 10 weeks for females, 17 weeks for males -- then to the cleaners before freezing, only to sit on the shelf for maybe years.

Turkey sales are mainly limited to Christmas. To meet the sharp spike in demand for that period, more than 5 million turkeys are farmed for our tables through the year, around 85% intensively by large commercial growers.

That means most turkeys need to be frozen and stored until the festive season -- or the next, or the next -- we're not told how long.

Fresh turkeys have to carry a use-by date, but frozen ones don't have to have a date on them, so they can be kept for years. Some manufacturers do give a Best Before Date, to indicate when they are best eaten, but by law they don't have to.

Gary Kennedy, a food technologist and safety expert, says "There is no obligation to sell within that date;, you could actually sell that product after that date. Theoretically a long period after that time".

Again frozen foods aren't required to display a use-by or packed-on date. That loophole in our food labelling laws means shoppers don't know and aren't told how long frozen turkeys have been sitting on the shelf.

Emma Hurst from Animal Liberation says, "The issue there is they are not actually letting consumers know that it has been there for two to three years".

The two largest turkey producers, Inghams and Steggles, voluntarily stamp a Best Before Date of up to 2 years, some other brands up to 3 years. So 2011 means it could have been sitting on the shelf since early 2009 -- almost 2 years, there's simply no way of knowing.

But the supermarkets know. There's a secret code that shoppers can't decipher, that tells the supermarket the actual age of the turkey. Wouldn't it be nice if we were told? "If a turkey is years old, particularly if you have kept it in your freezer for part of that time, there are two things which are likely to make it not be a 'good' turkey or great turkey for Christmas", Gary said.

Gary says repeatedly opening and closing the supermarket and kitchen freezer door can cause partial thawing and the quality deteriorates over time. "The freezer burn -- a white scaley part - is caused by the thawing out and freezing and thawing out, and that would be the drier part of the turkey, it would taste drier and not be as appetising. If you stored the turkey for a few years the fat would start to change, it's going to go a slightly brown colour and would taste different and not be appetising", Gary said.

Juliana Madden from the Food Safety Information Council, Federal Department of Health, says, "If they are frozen and are going to last more than two years and still be safe, then date stamping isn't required".

Juliana defends the Federal Government's labelling laws. "Frozen food will last an incredibly long amount of time as long as it hasn't got freezer burn or has been partially defrosted and then frozen again", she added.

But Gary Kennedy says the longer you freeze it, the riskier. "The CSIRO on its website recommends 18 months as a maximum time for poultry", Gary said.

After slaughter, commercial turkeys are washed and cooled, usually in an immersion chiller in chlorinated cold water. It's a process that's been criticised by smaller manufacturers who use an alternative air-chilling method.

In immersion chilling, turkeys absorb water and become plumper. "It's my understanding that turkeys can sell for a much higher price if they have been used in immersion chilling because they weigh more. The law is that turkeys shouldn't have more than 6% water in their bodies, but sometimes it's a lot more", Emma said.

A $40 turkey, containing 6% water, means you're paying $2.40 just for water.

Free-range and organic turkeys make up around 15% of the market, but most turkeys live in massive sheds. "Turkey's are supposed to be given the size of an A3 piece of paper to live on, however in the shed the turkey's have become so large that they are standing one on top of each other", Emma said.

A secret camera reveals their extreme confinement which results in, "Animals with legs splayed out, turkey's with major foot abnormalities making it difficult for them to walk, turkey's with major cuts and abrasions that have become infected", Emma said.

The supermarkets and large producers have been expanding into the more humane free range and organic market, but you pay another 20% or more.

If you're about to buy for Christmas, here's some advice. "Watch the dates. Shop around with somebody who you trust, find somebody who has a good stock rotation and above all if you ever pick any food that smells bad or looks bad -- don't eat it. The fresher the turkey the better the experience at