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The five things you need to know about poultry

In a special three-part series, "Today" food editor Phil Lempert offers tips on safety, value and how to get the best tasting chicken and turkey.

We love our poultry — in fact, last year the average American consumed almost 85 pounds of chicken and 18 pounds of turkey. So there's no question it is now one of our favorite protein foods, but do you know how to get the best value and the best taste?

First and most important we need to dispel the myth about hormones in poultry. According to FDA regulations, the use of hormones in chicken and turkey are not allowed. So for those of you who are concerned, relax!

Antibiotics are allowed, but many of the major brands, including Tyson, Perdue and Foster Farms, have taken most or all of the antibiotics out of the feed they give to healthy birds. However, the only way to tell is if the package is labeled antibiotic-free.

When it comes to value:
There are three designations of birds: Fresh, frozen and hard-chilled. Fresh has been stored at 26 degrees or above, hard-chilled at 0 to 26 degrees and frozen at 0 degrees or below. There is no difference from a nutritional, taste or cooking standpoint, but frozen will be the least expensive and take the most time to thaw. Typically 24 hours per five pounds in the refrigerator (or 30 minutes per pound under cold running water).

Today there are many products that are pre-marinated. These typically cost more than marinating the meat yourself and may be loaded with sodium or sugars, so read the labels carefully.

When buying prepackaged pieces or breasts, always look under the meat to see the “bladder,” which is a diaper-like sheet that will absorb any excess moisture that naturally seeps out of the meat. Keep in mind that, typically, the longer the meat has sat in the case, the more moisture. Press down on the meat to see just how much moisture there is in the package, and choose one that has little or no seepage.

When it comes to turkey, best buys are around Thanksgiving time. If you have room in the freezer, stock up. Whole frozen turkeys will last in their original packaging up to a year.

When you get ready to cook:
Always cook poultry with the skin on. A thin membrane between the skin and the meat holds in the moisture, keeping the meat juicy and tasty, and actually keeps the fat out of the meat. Remove the skin after cooking.

What about taste?
There's the age old debate: White or dark meat?

The truth is that white meat contains less calories and fat, and therefore dark meat is a bit tastier. However, the meatiest parts of the bird are the “flight muscles” or breast meat. The walking muscles, on the first and second segments of the legs, are the thigh and drumstick.

Since most poultry birds don’t have sustained use of their flight muscles these days, this part of the bird has less oxygen-carrying myoglobin than the walking muscles — and that’s what gives the meat a lighter color. Waterfowl, like geese and ducks who do use their flight muscles, have darker breast meat.

Read those labels, and beware of the marketing tricks:
Free range or cage free just means that the birds, according to the USDA, are allowed access to the outside; which in many cases just means that the door to the cage is left open or has been removed. The idea of a happy-go-lucky bird roaming the grounds is far from the truth, as most birds are sedentary.

If you are concerned about animal welfare, look for the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" label which dictates that the birds receive a nutritious diet free from antibiotics and are raised with shelter, resting areas and space sufficient to support natural behavior.

What about bird flu? Am I safe?
The current bird flu virus that is making headlines around the world is a highly pathogenic avian influenza strain (H5N1 HPAI) that is very contagious among birds. The high level human risk stems from extensive exposure and close contact to infected birds or their environment, not from consuming poultry. Infected birds spread the virus thru their saliva, droppings and nasal secretions. However, to best protect ourselves from the possibility of bird flu from foods:

  • Avoid eating foods that contain raw or lightly cooked eggs — for example, raw batter or cookie dough made with eggs, homemade or fresh dressings made with raw eggs (Caesar, Béarnaise, Hollandaise, Aioli), mayonnaise, homemade ice cream, and meringue. Commercial dressings and sauces that are pasteurized or use pasteurized eggs are safe.
  • Cook all eggs till egg yolk and whites are firm and not runny. Cooking eggs to at least 165 degrees will kill the bird virus if present.
  • When preparing poultry and eggs, be sure to wash your hands with hot soapy water after handling.
  • Wash countertops, cutting boards, knives and all utensils with hot soapy water.

For more information, be sure to watch our "5 Things You Need to Know" series on "Today." Tuesday we talk about fish, Wednesday is meat, and for 24/7 information, visit Phil’s Web site at:

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .