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Is Pink Turkey Meat
The color pink in cooked turkey meat
raises a "red flag" to many diners and cooks.
Conditioned to be wary of pink in fresh pork, they
question the safety of cooked poultry and other meats
that have a rosy blush.
Numerous callers to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline
report being alarmed when seeing "pink." To
them, it means "unsafe" or
"I cooked my turkey until done according to
the directions, but when I sliced the breast meat, it was
still pink near the bone," said an Oklahoma
caller. "Is it safe?"
"We had a big family argument at
Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Mildred wouldn't eat the turkey
because it looked pink," reported the
beleaguered cook from a Wisconsin family.
The color of cooked meat and poultry is not always a sure
sign of its degree of doneness. Only by using a
meat thermometer can one accurately determine
that a meat has reached a safe temperature. Turkey, fresh
pork, ground beef or veal can remain pink even after
cooking to temperatures of 160° F and higher. The meat
of smoked turkey is always pink.
To understand some of the causes of "pinking"
or "pinkening" in fresh turkey, it's important
to know first what gives meat its natural color.
Why is Poultry
Lighter in Color Than Beef?
The protein myoglobin is the major pigment found in all
vertebrates and can exist in various forms which
determine the resulting meat color. The major reason that
poultry meat is much lighter in color than beef is that
it is dramatically lower in myoglobin. Also, as an animal
becomes older, its myoglobin content usually increases.
Turkeys today are young - 14 to 18 weeks old at the time
Why Are White
and Dark Meat of Poultry Different Colors?
The pink, red or white coloration of meat is due
primarily to oxygen-storing myoglobin which is located in
the muscle cells and retains the oxygen brought by the
blood until the cells need it. To some extent, oxygen use
can be related to the bird's general level of activity:
muscles that are exercised frequently and strenuously --
such as the legs -- need more oxygen, and they have a
greater storage capacity than muscles needing little
oxygen. Turkeys do a lot of standing around, but little
if any flying, so their wing and breast muscles are
white; their legs, dark.
Well-Done Meat to Be Pink?
1. Chemical Changes During Cooking.
Scientists have found that pinkness occurs when gases in
the atmosphere of a heated gas or electric oven react
chemically with hemoglobin in the meat tissues to give
poultry a pink tinge. They are the same substances that
give red color to smoked hams and other cured meats. The
presence of high levels of myoglobin, or some of its
redder forms, due to incomplete denaturation during heat
processing can account for poultry having a pink to red
color similar to that of an undercooked product.
2. High Cytochrome c Levels.
A component of hemo-protein in the turkey meat,
cytochrome c requires a much higher temperature (above
212° F) to lose its pink color than myoglobin. Because
turkey is tender and done at 180 to 185° F, heating it
to above 212° F to change the pink color of cytochrome c
would make it so dry and tough, it would be almost
3. Natural Presence of Nitrites.
Nitrites are commonly used to produce a desired pink
color in traditionally cured meats such as ham or
bologna. So it follows that the natural presence of
nitrates and nitrites either in the feed or water supply
used in the production of poultry are a factor in nitrite
levels in the birds. One study found that during 40 hours
of storage at 40° F., naturally occurring microorganisms
converted nitrate to nitrite. It also found that the
local water supply had nitrate and thus it could serve as
a nitrate source during processing.
4. Young Age of Meat.
Often meat of younger birds shows the most pink because
their thinner skins permit oven gases to reach the flesh.
The amount of fat in the skin also affects the amount of
pink color. Young birds or animals also lack the shield
of a fat covering.
Meat and poultry grilled or smoked outdoors can also look
pink, even when well done. There may be a pink-colored
rim about one-half inch wide around the outside of the
cooked meat. The meat of commercially smoked turkeys is
usually pink because they are prepared with natural smoke
and liquid smoke flavor.
How to Test for
The best way to be sure a turkey - or any meat - is
cooked safely and done is to use a meat thermometer. If
the temperature of the turkey as measured in the thigh
has reached 180° F and is done to family preference, all
the meat - including any that remains pink - is safe to
eat. Absent a meat thermometer, visual signs of doneness
include checking the color of the juices which run when
the turkey is pierced with a fork. Juices should be
clear, not pink. The meat should be fork tender, and the
leg should move easily in the joint.
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