As if Thanksgiving shoppers didn’t have enough trouble distinguishing from among the labels natural, free range, organic, and heritage, now there’s another distinction to watch out for: heirloom vs. heritage.
According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, the “heirloom” turkeys being raised by Diestel Turkey Ranch and sold at Whole Foods and elsewhere are not true heritage turkeys. At the bottom of the foundation’s Northern California Resources page, it says that Diestel’s heirloom turkeys are an older breed, called the Orlop strain of Broad-Breasted Bronze turkey — a predecessor of the Broad Breasted White, which comprises 99% of turkeys sold today. “It’s essentially a white, but with brown feathers. These turkeys were developed by Orlop Turkeys and others in the 1930’s. They can’t mate naturally,” according to the Heritage Turkey people. “They can be raised faster, with less feed, and they can therefore be sold cheaper.” This would explain why Whole Foods has them for so much cheaper than the heritage ones at Berkeley Bowl and elsewhere.
Diestel does not actually call its turkeys heritage, but the ad copy — “just like great grandma served,” and how they’re “committed to preserving an otherwise vanishing breed” — sure makes it sound like that’s what you’re getting. Diestel says that the birds are raised outside and slaughtered at six months (versus two for Broad-Breasted Whites), both of which indicate that even if the birds don’t mate naturally, they can at least walk and are not plagued with the health problems of their industrial cousins. It would be nice to see Diestel explain the difference on its website, and tell why they are not raising true heritage birds, and opting instead for Borad-Breasted Bronzes.
It’s my fault for not doing my homework more thoroughly the first time: a quick Google would have revealed that the two terms are not synonymous. (For example, Carol Ness wrote about this distinction last year in the Chronicle.) Maybe someday we’ll have food labels that you don’t need a guide and a third-party certifier for, but in the meantime, it’s up to consumers to do our own research and balance price with your idea of good, better, and best choices.