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Article from Wall Street Journal


The Cranky Consumer: Talking Turkey: A Test Of Toll-Free Hotlines

The Basting Backlash

By Katy McLaughlin, The Wall Street Journal, 1242 words

Nov 24, 2004

Document Text

Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company Inc. Reproduced with permission of copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

THANKSGIVING CAN BRING plenty of tensions -- from annoying relatives, to bone-dry slabs of breast meat. But while you're on your own with the in-laws, toll-free help is available for your turkey.

A flock of turkey companies provide phone therapy for anxious roasters seeking advice before Thanksgiving or emergency help on the day itself. The granddaddy of helplines, Butterball, has been at it for nearly a quarter century, but now there are rivals including Perdue Farms, Empire Kosher Poultry and Jennie-O Turkey Store. During recent years, even niche players like Lobel's of New York, a high-end butcher shop, and Mary's Turkeys in Fresno, Calif., a supplier of "heritage" rare-breed birds, have started help lines.

We tested eight lines, asking detailed questions about food safety (for instance, can you half-cook your turkey the day before -- a big no-no), and about a variety of traditional and newfangled cooking techniques.

Some were more helpful than others. Rather inconveniently, Empire Kosher Poultry's consumer hotline, (800) 367-4734, closes at noon today, Eastern time, and is shut on Thanksgiving. The woman who answered the phone at Jennie-O, a Hormel Foods unit, had to look up almost every question we asked, and repeatedly tried to pitch us a new product, the "Oven Ready" bird that requires no preparation.

The biggest surprise: Nearly everyone advised against frequent basting, a revered but apparently wrongheaded Thanksgiving staple. Current orthodoxy calls instead for rubbing the bird with butter or oil before roasting, then keeping the oven door shut. Opening the oven to baste lets hot air out of the oven, which means it takes longer to cook and causes the meat to dry out, most of the hotlines said.

Turkey processors, of course, see the hotlines as a marketing tool. While chicken sales have taken off, turkey consumption has been flat for five years, remaining stubbornly at about 17 pounds per capita -- with nearly a third of that devoured during the holidays, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Having a chat with customers lets companies extol the virtues of their brands, as well as tell consumers about new products and direct them to their Web sites, which are packed with ideas on how to enjoy turkey for breakfast (think turkey sausage and creamed turkey on English muffins), lunch and dinner.

The hotlines are especially useful with the emergence of trendy, somewhat complicated techniques like brining -- soaking the turkey in salt water -- and deep frying. In addition, raising the stakes when cooking goes afoul, consumers are increasingly opting for more expensive free-range and organic birds, as well as heritage breeds (which can be trickier to cook because they have less breast meat).

Our most impressive experience came from the adviser at Butterball, which is a brand of ConAgra Foods. She explained the science behind brining (the salt causes the muscle cells to absorb water) and also authoritatively discussed the secret to crispy skin and moist breast meat. A key point: Drape a piece of aluminum foil across the breast late in the game to keep it from drying out.

We asked each hotline if we could partially cook the bird the day before, and finish cooking the next day. While all the helplines gave the right answer (which is "no," because bacteria can breed), the Butterball adviser was one of only two to explain in detail an alternative approach. She suggested we fully cook the bird the day before, carve it, and then reheat the slices after sprinkling them with chicken stock. The other to suggest this method was the Foster Farms hotline, (800) 255-7227.

Mary's Turkeys gets top marks for the personal touch: Mary herself answered the phone. The downside to the family-style operation (Mary's husband and three sons will be joining her on the phone bank on Thanksgiving) was that we left a message one day and never got a call back, and Mary sounded very busy once we finally got her on the phone.

We were also hoping for a comforting bedside manner -- key when your turkey goes up in flames as hungry relatives are banging their forks and knives. But while the service from Foster Farms and Perdue Farms was competent, both our advisers were perfunctory: We felt the answers sounded canned, and that the staff seemed eager to get us off the phone.

Foster Farms also made a mistake by telling us that yes, we could brine our turkey in a trash bag. Later, when we called the company to comment on our experience, a representative said that's incorrect, because all food should be prepared in materials made specifically for food preparation. (The company is reviewing food-safety procedures with the phone staff, a spokeswoman says.)

Some of the hotlines were of limited use. Shady Brook Farms (888) 723-4468 and Honeysuckle White (800) 810-6325, both brands of Cargill Inc., don't have live hotlines; instead, they both offer prerecorded thawing and cooking tips.

We expected gold-plated service from Lobel's of New York, which sells expensive gobblers -- free-range, organic turkeys cost about $5 a pound, and smoked turkeys roughly $6 a pound. But on two separate days, we filled out forms on the Web site, lobels.com, requesting that a customer-service representative call us, and we never got a call back. The company says two of its five phone-bank workers abruptly quit the week we conducted our test. Service is now back to normal, the company says.

---

Andrea Petersen contributed to this article.

---

Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company Inc. Reproduced with permission of copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

THANKSGIVING CAN BRING plenty of tensions -- from annoying relatives, to bone-dry slabs of breast meat. But while you're on your own with the in-laws, toll-free help is available for your turkey.

A flock of turkey companies provide phone therapy for anxious roasters seeking advice before Thanksgiving or emergency help on the day itself. The granddaddy of helplines, Butterball, has been at it for nearly a quarter century, but now there are rivals including Perdue Farms, Empire Kosher Poultry and Jennie-O Turkey Store. During recent years, even niche players like Lobel's of New York, a high-end butcher shop, and Mary's Turkeys in Fresno, Calif., a supplier of "heritage" rare-breed birds, have started help lines.

We tested eight lines, asking detailed questions about food safety (for instance, can you half-cook your turkey the day before -- a big no-no), and about a variety of traditional and newfangled cooking techniques.

Some were more helpful than others. Rather inconveniently, Empire Kosher Poultry's consumer hotline, (800) 367-4734, closes at noon today, Eastern time, and is shut on Thanksgiving. The woman who answered the phone at Jennie-O, a Hormel Foods unit, had to look up almost every question we asked, and repeatedly tried to pitch us a new product, the "Oven Ready" bird that requires no preparation.

The biggest surprise: Nearly everyone advised against frequent basting, a revered but apparently wrongheaded Thanksgiving staple. Current orthodoxy calls instead for rubbing the bird with butter or oil before roasting, then keeping the oven door shut. Opening the oven to baste lets hot air out of the oven, which means it takes longer to cook and causes the meat to dry out, most of the hotlines said.

Turkey processors, of course, see the hotlines as a marketing tool. While chicken sales have taken off, turkey consumption has been flat for five years, remaining stubbornly at about 17 pounds per capita -- with nearly a third of that devoured during the holidays, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Having a chat with customers lets companies extol the virtues of their brands, as well as tell consumers about new products and direct them to their Web sites, which are packed with ideas on how to enjoy turkey for breakfast (think turkey sausage and creamed turkey on English muffins), lunch and dinner.

The hotlines are especially useful with the emergence of trendy, somewhat complicated techniques like brining -- soaking the turkey in salt water -- and deep frying. In addition, raising the stakes when cooking goes afoul, consumers are increasingly opting for more expensive free-range and organic birds, as well as heritage breeds (which can be trickier to cook because they have less breast meat).

Our most impressive experience came from the adviser at Butterball, which is a brand of ConAgra Foods. She explained the science behind brining (the salt causes the muscle cells to absorb water) and also authoritatively discussed the secret to crispy skin and moist breast meat. A key point: Drape a piece of aluminum foil across the breast late in the game to keep it from drying out.

We asked each hotline if we could partially cook the bird the day before, and finish cooking the next day. While all the helplines gave the right answer (which is "no," because bacteria can breed), the Butterball adviser was one of only two to explain in detail an alternative approach. She suggested we fully cook the bird the day before, carve it, and then reheat the slices after sprinkling them with chicken stock. The other to suggest this method was the Foster Farms hotline, (800) 255-7227.

Mary's Turkeys gets top marks for the personal touch: Mary herself answered the phone. The downside to the family-style operation (Mary's husband and three sons will be joining her on the phone bank on Thanksgiving) was that we left a message one day and never got a call back, and Mary sounded very busy once we finally got her on the phone.

We were also hoping for a comforting bedside manner -- key when your turkey goes up in flames as hungry relatives are banging their forks and knives. But while the service from Foster Farms and Perdue Farms was competent, both our advisers were perfunctory: We felt the answers sounded canned, and that the staff seemed eager to get us off the phone.

Foster Farms also made a mistake by telling us that yes, we could brine our turkey in a trash bag. Later, when we called the company to comment on our experience, a representative said that's incorrect, because all food should be prepared in materials made specifically for food preparation. (The company is reviewing food-safety procedures with the phone staff, a spokeswoman says.)

Some of the hotlines were of limited use. Shady Brook Farms (888) 723-4468 and Honeysuckle White (800) 810-6325, both brands of Cargill Inc., don't have live hotlines; instead, they both offer prerecorded thawing and cooking tips.

We expected gold-plated service from Lobel's of New York, which sells expensive gobblers -- free-range, organic turkeys cost about $5 a pound, and smoked turkeys roughly $6 a pound. But on two separate days, we filled out forms on the Web site, lobels.com, requesting that a customer-service representative call us, and we never got a call back. The company says two of its five phone-bank workers abruptly quit the week we conducted our test. Service is now back to normal, the company says.

---

Andrea Petersen contributed to this article.

---

HOTLINE: Butterball (800) 288-8372 butterball.com THANKSGIVING HOURS: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time BEST TIP: To cook a bird in advance: Roast and carve it the day before,

refrigerate, then reheat the slices sprinkled with chicken stock. GAFFE: Said it's OK to "brine" it in a trash bag. (USDA says only food- grade bags should be used in food preparation.)

COMMENT: Answered our queries in great detail -- even explaining how brining (soaking in salt water) works at the cellular level.

HOTLINE: Jennie-O Turkey Store (800) 887-5397 jennie-o.com THANKSGIVING HOURS: 24 hours a day BEST TIP: When we showed interest in in-the-bag cooking, she raved about a

new Jennie-O freezer-to-oven, in-the-bag turkey called "Oven Ready." GAFFE: Suggested roasting the bird breast-down, then flipping it when half-done. But it's tricky to flip a big, hot bird. COMMENT: Had to put us on hold to look up many answers. She said much of

her advice came from her own recipes, which contradicted company advice.

HOTLINE: Perdue Farms (800) 473-7383 perdue.com THANKSGIVING HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern BEST TIP: Took down our address to mail a free booklet with recipe ideas,

which arrived a week later. GAFFE: Encouraged frequent basting, contradicting other experts who say too much is bad because the oven temperature drops each time the door is opened.

COMMENT: Answered most of our questions, but had no suggestions for how we

could prepare our bird the day before and still serve it hot.

HOTLINE: Mary's Turkeys (888) 666-8244 marysturkeys.com THANKSGIVING HOURS: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern BEST TIP: Told us that because heritage turkeys have smaller breasts than conventional birds, they cook faster. GAFFE: We left a message and never got a call back. When we called the next day, Mary answered, but she tried to end our call quickly because she was busy. COMMENT: Mary says she's a tiny operation and consumers need to keep calling until they reach a live person, or check the Web site.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.