Foodies used to pay more for turkeys with a back story. Now, more birds are getting one.
Jennie-O Turkey Store, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp. and the nation's second-largest turkey brand, said Thursday it will start using labels that let consumers trace its whole-bird turkeys to their home farm.
With its size and influence, Jennie-O's new label is helping turn what had been an attribute of premium foods into something mainstream as more consumers seek information about food.
The news came a few days after Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. announced expanded traceability for a limited number of its Honeysuckle White turkeys during the holiday season. Willmar-based Jennie-O is going further by making all of its fresh and frozen whole birds traceable year-round.
"Jennie-O's announcement is proof that this is not a niche trend but something with legs," said Laurie Demeritt, chief executive of consumer foods research firm the Hartman Group.
Jennie-O has been working for a year to make its turkey supply traceable and around 52 farms are currently included in the program. Minnesota raises more turkeys than any other state, around 45 million annually, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The majority of Jennie-O's turkey are raised in the state and neighboring Wisconsin.
Last year, Jennie-O processed more than 1.2 billion pounds of turkey meat, leading Cargill's 1 billion pounds and trailing only Butterball LLC, which processed nearly 1.4 billion pounds, according to Watt PoultryUSA, a trade publication.
When a consumer enters the code listed on a whole turkey's package at the Jennie-O website, they will be taken to a page giving them the region of the farm — such as "west central Minnesota" — pictures of the family and a quote from the farmer. The company's tracking program doesn't include ground turkey, "Oven-Ready" birds or other Jennie-O branded turkey items bought in the meat aisle.
There are some other differences between the Jennie-O and Cargill traceability efforts. While Jennie-O's program applies to all its whole birds, all year long, Cargill's gives greater detail about the families — like names and a more precise location.
Cargill's harnesses the power of blockchain technology to give consumers the power to verify their bird's home farm. Blockchain is a cloud-based technology that allows multiple users to add information to a "digital ledger" shared across a network of computers. The data is constantly updated and stored in countless places making it harder to hack and easier to verify.
Jennie-O's program is accessed on a website that the company regularly updates. The traceability doesn't add any additional costs to the consumers, said Brent Koosmann, director of marketing at Jennie-O.
Food labels were unregulated and fairly vague until the late 1960s. But it took until 2002 for rules to emerge in the U.S. for country-of-origin labels for various meats, fish, shellfish, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Since then, some farmers and smaller producers have used origin labels and stories to distinguish their products. Meanwhile, food activists and conscientious consumers have pressed to know more about the origins of food they eat.
In some places, such passions are so strong they have become ripe for satire. The TV show "Portlandia," which spoofs life in Portland, Ore., produced a popular episode in 2011 depicting a couple questioning the restaurant staff about the name, social life and farm location of the chicken being served.
And while the traceability programs of mass producers like Jennie-O and Cargill may not satisfy the most information-hungry eaters, it's a step that reflects the nation's evolving food values, Demeritt said.
"It is a formerly premium attribute that is starting to go mainstream," she said, "but is still evolving and I wouldn't say is firmly entrenched in the consumer landscape yet."
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767