Turkey label claims explained

by Coach Mark Smallwood

Buying that fresh turkey to roast up for the holidays is a long-standing American tradition. Heritage breed turkeys are all the rage with the foodie set, and we’ve got a number of heritage breed chickens out at the Rodale Institute. But what does that actually mean? Demand for meats that are “greener” have lead to an explosion in labeling at the meat counter and at your local farm that can be confusing for even the well-versed shopper. Learning what the labels mean and how to ask your farmer about his or her practices can make shopping for your holiday bird almost as easy as eating it.

The Labels

These are some of the more common terms, labels and certifications you might see on a fresh or frozen turkey. Remember: Pricing is simple economics—supply and demand. Industrial birds are less expensive due to economies of scale, so you’ll usually pay more for birds that bear these labels:

Heritage: This term describes the kind of bird rather than how it has been raised—like an heirloom vegetable. The overwhelming majority of turkeys available nowadays are Broad Breasted Whites and many heritage breeds are at risk of disappearing altogether. Kind of like if all dogs were Golden Retrievers. Although there are no production standards, heritage breeds are always small-batch production.

Certified Organic: Farms must follow USDA guidelines and have been inspected regularly to earn this official label. Feed is certified organic and the turkeys are not given antibiotics or synthetic hormones. They must have access to the outdoors, but not necessarily access to pasture. Cloned animals and GMOs are prohibited.

Animal Welfare Approved®: Turkeys are raised outdoors on pasture, and farms have to meet health and welfare guidelines that include limited antibiotic use and low-stress handling/slaughtering. Annual inspections of these family farms are required. Cloned animals and GMOs are prohibited.

Certified Humane®: Farms have to meet health and welfare guidelines that include limited antibiotic use, low-stress handling/slaughtering and air quality standards. Access to outdoors not required, but standards for range-raised turkeys must be met if that is the arrangement.

Pasture-raised: NOTE: There are no labeling regulations for the claim “pasture-raised. ” Generally speaking, these turkeys have been raised outside on pasture rather than inside. Although they have shelter, they spend their lives on grass. They usually forage for natural foods in addition to eating supplemental feed.

Raised without antibiotics: These turkeys were not given any antibiotics during their lifecycle. You may also see “no routine antibiotics,” meaning the birds only received antibiotics if they were sick rather than as a preventative medication.

Free-range: Turkeys must have had access to the outdoors at all times, although this does not mean they took advantage or that they saw pasture.

Cage-free: Although not held in tiny cages, turkeys may still be raised industrially.

Natural: No artificial ingredients or colors were added and it was minimally processed.

No-hormones added: Hormones are already prohibited in all poultry production, so all turkeys could carry this label.

The Questions

Even if you’re buying from your local farmer, you need to be able to ask about their certifications and farming practices to get the best bird for your dollar. Don’t be shy. Most small family farmers love to talk about what they do and how they do it once they know you’re interested. You just have to know what questions to ask to get the answers you need.

What breeds do you raise? If your farmer raises heritage breeds, be prepared for a long answer here! But don’t be surprised if the answer is “Broad Breasted Whites.” This is the big, moist turkey most American eaters want, so this breed is still common even on small family farms.

What is their housing like? You want to find out if they are in cages, a barn, or outside, and about how much space they have to move around in. If they are in a barn, the next question will be especially important.

How much time do they spend on pasture? It isn’t healthy in all climates to keep turkeys outdoors all day. But, being out on pasture has health benefits for both the birds and your Thanksgiving guests alike. Remember “access” to pasture does not necessarily mean they’ve spent any time there.

What do you feed your turkeys? If the answer is anything other than grain, grasses, insects, or greens, you might want to dig a little deeper and ask what the bagged feed is made of, and if they supplement with anything other than vitamins.

How often do you use antibiotics on your farm? Find out not just whether or not they use antibiotics, but how and why. Giving three sick turkeys antibiotics and quarantining them is very different than constantly feeding the whole flock antibiotic-laced feed.

Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs, and driven a team of oxen.

Lead photo by kevin dooley/flickr.

One Response to “Turkey label claims explained”

  1. Melinda Hemmelgarn

    As a consumer educator, advocate and registered dietitian, I commend you on this consumer-friendly guide to turkey labels.
    What a complicated maze of terminology.

    I’d like to emphasize the importance of the question:
    “What do the birds eat?”

    I’ve learned to beware of answers like “natural vegetarian feed.”
    This often equates to corn and soy, and GMO at that. Farmers tell me the non-GMO feed is more expensive and hard to find. (This is one of the main reasons why I choose organic birds — no GMO feed). But we consumers can increase supply by increasing demand, and rejecting GMO-fed animals.

    As for the term “natural,” let me add that this term applies to post-slaughter. So it has nothing to do with what the animals ate or how they were treated pre-slaughter.

    Thank you again for this important post and for all the terrific work at Rodale. Happy Holidays.

    Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
    Food Sleuth Radio: http://www.kopn.org


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