What You Should Know Before Buying Your Thanksgiving Turkey
[In this guide--the key to deciphering confusing poultry labels and the type of turkey I buy every year]
Organic? Humane? All-Natural? The Label Overload
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You stop by the grocery store on your way home from work, intending to make it a quick trip. You're doing great until you reach the packaged poultry. A wall of pinkish bird parts stares you down as you squint carefully at one package then another.
This one says organic, that one says all-natural, the one over there says cage-free and another says pasture-raised. Finally, you grab one that sounds alright and rush to checkout, entirely forgetting about the chicken conundrum before you've even reached your car.
The truth is, most of us are in the dark when it comes to picking poultry, relying on vague descriptors like "all natural","humanely raised", and "no hormones added" to reassure us that we've made the right choice.
However, withThanksgiving fast approaching, it would behooves us all to figure out once and for all just what all those poultry labels mean, and which mean nothing at all. Do it for yourself, but also do it for the bird who very nearly held the title America’s National Bird. Yep, that’s true.
What Not to Buy: The Misleading Labels
These are the labels you need to avoid completely or very actively research before buying your Turkey this year.
"Natural" & "All Natural”: According to the USDA definition, “all natural" doesn't refer to how a bird is raised, only how it is processed. To garner this label, the bird can be raised in any environment and fed any type of food, as long as its carcass is minimally processed at the factory and contains no artificial ingredients.
“Humanely raised”: The USDA doesn't define this term on its own--it needs to be followed by an explanation of how the farmer raises the animals. If a product is claiming that it is "Humanely Raised" without that explanation, then it's really anyone's guess as to that animal's quality of life and diet.
“No Hormones Added”: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in all poultry, so a "no hormones added" label is meaningless. The USDA requires packaging containing this phrase to follow it with, "federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." They don't specify a minimum font size, however.
For as much as these labels may mislead us into buying sub-par Turkey, the consequences that we face aren’t as horrific as those faced by thousands of Turkeys every year. Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals said, Speaking to USA Today,
"The majority of turkeys in this country raised for food ... are living in these intensive, inhumane, unhealthy conditions that consumers wouldn’t accept if they could see them, but by the time the meat reaches the supermarket, we’re all relying on these very vague words."
The Official USDA Labels & What They Mean
Poultry containing these labels aren’t actively trying to dupe you into buying that product, so that’s a good start. That still doesn’t guarantee the birds are raised in a humane or environmentally friendly manner. Here’s what these labels mean.
Organic: Birds that are fed only organic food with no animal by-products. Produced without most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and contains no antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering or irradiation (exposure to ionizing radiation to eliminate disease-causing microorganisms like E. coli).
Free-Range: Legally this means that the Turkey is allowed access to the outdoors. While this sounds find and dandy, this doesn’t mean the birds are roaming around freely or even going outdoors at all. In an article in Food52, Goldwyn Meathead (literally the best name ever), a BBQ expert and editor and writer at AmazingRibs.com, said, “In practice, this means the producer can simply leave a door open to a small penned area, but the birds rarely go through the door into that scary sunny open area.”
Cage-Free: This a good label to look for when shopping for eggs, Turkeys are too large to be kept in cages, so are always “cage-free”. Just like “hormone-free”, this label is essentially meaningless.
No Antibiotics Ever, Raised Without Antibiotics, & No Added Antibiotics: These are the only phrases approved by the USDA which indicate that the animal did not receive antibiotics in their feed, water, or by injection. The USDA does not recognize the phrase “Antibiotic-free” or any other phrases besides these three.
The third-Party Certified Labels
Look for these labels to indicate the most humane, environmentally friendly, and health-conscious means of poultry production. These third-party organizations visit farms to perform audits and have specific guidelines related to preventing neglect, mutilation and extremely crowded living conditions. These certifications include:
Animal Welfare Approved: This certification is what “free-range” should be. As part of the organization Green World, it requires that the animals be raised on pasture and have the ability to exhibit natural behavior, spread their wings, fly, run, and perch. Artificial insemination—the main way turkeys reproduce--and caged systems are prohibited.
Certified Humane: The non-profit organization Humane Farm Animal Care has specific guidelines for the quality of indoor facilities, including the amount of light, floor space per turkey and air quality. Cages are prohibited and the turkeys must be provided “enrichment” opportunities such as foraging and access to hay bales and perches.
Global Animal Partnership: This organization, primarily found on products at Whole Foods oversees a five-step rating program based on criteria including whether the animals were raised in uncrowded quarters, were allowed to express their natural behavior, go outdoors or live on pasture.
If you are willing to pay a little extra to sidestep the hassle of sorting through all those labels, I suggest you go for a Heritage bird.
Heritage turkeys are closer to wild turkeys because their biology has not been altered in order to breed for human consumption. Although they have smaller breasts and don’t have that traditional “turkey” look, I like them for their rich, flavorful meat that tastes nothing like the dry, bland stuff you find with conventional Turkeys.
They must also be produced through natural mating, be able to live a long, active life outside, and have a slow growth rate that means it reaches market weight in no fewer than 16 weeks.
Speaking to civileats.com, self-proclaimed “poultry sommelier” Chef Antoine Westermann, who serves heritage chickens at his poultry-centric restaurant Le Coq Rico in New York said,
“[Heritage birds have time to develop flavors that quick-growing birds don’t, and they actually reveal a terroir, like fine wine. Beyond that, I believe when an animal lives a good life, you can taste it.”