Sorting Through Turkey Label Terms—How to Pick Your Thanksgiving Bird

Organic turkey, free-range turkey, pasture-raised turkey, hormone-free turkey, what do all these turkey terms mean? We’ll clear up some of the label confusion so you can focus on what really matters this Thanksgiving.

When I was younger, I always remember my mom shopping at our local grocery store and "qualifying" for a free turkey on Thanksgiving because she spent enough money at the store itself preparing to host our extended family each year. Fast forward a few decades and there are many more choices when it comes to turkey. It used to be simple: "fresh or frozen?" And usually free! Now the prices range from $.99 per pound to up to $10 per pound and are adjoined by a head-spinning array of terms such as organic turkey, free-range turkey, pasture-raised turkey, cage free, no antibiotics, and more. Unfortunately, some of those terms have no regulations at all, leaving it up to the buyer to determine.

Outside of which turkey you buy, there's also no shortage of cooking strategies to ensure the most moist and flavorful turkey. And of course, your centerpiece bird will surely be complemented with some wonderful Thanksgiving sides. You have enough on your plate without worrying over the turkey label.

Simple Roast Turkey
James Baigrie

Organic Turkey

Certified Organic is defined by the USDA and has many, many parts to it:

Earning the label "organic turkey" means the birds can only be fed organic feed with no antibiotics or antifungals. Additionally, the facilities the birds are raised in have not had any synthetic products, such as herbicides or sanitation chemicals, used in them for a period of time. This is all regulated by the USDA, so processors cannot use the organic label without meeting these standards.

Free-Range Turkey

This usually refers to the flock having some sort of access to the outside during their growing cycle. According to the USDA, producers must simply be able to demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside in order to "earn" this label. But does that simply mean an open door in a barn or acres of green pastures to roam? Depending on where you live, free range might not even be possible year-round, shared John Zimmerman, whose farm is in Minnesota.

Cage-Free Turkey

All turkeys are cage-free. Turkeys are not raised in cages, so this label can really be ignored.

Pasture-Raised Turkey

Pasture-raised can often be confused with free-range. Marketers may tell you pasture-raised turkeys are bug and grub eating, dirt-scratching birds, just like nature intended. While this may conjure up images of lush green pastures with a gleaming red barn in the background of the rolling hills, there is zero regulation around this term.

The devil is in the details so it's important to do your own research to see how each farmer defines these terms. While this is likely not possible when picking one up at the grocery store, many farmers, like those who sell turkeys at my market, are open to questions and usually even offer tours. Yes, some farmers may truly allow their turkeys to have full access to pastures, but you can't be sure unless you know the farmer and visit their farm to see firsthand.

Hormone-Free Turkey

"Hormones are not used in poultry production. It is illegal," Zimmerman stated emphatically.

Even though it's often said that turkeys are so much bigger today than they were decades ago, this isn't because of added hormones; "it is because we are really good at providing a low-stress environment, with good nutrition, where turkeys can thrive and grow," Zimmerman continues.

Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics

The term ABF (antibiotic-free) can be applied to all meat and poultry. Antibiotics, if administered, would never be in the bird at the time of slaughter due to stringent withdrawal standards set by the federal government.

"People often have the misconception that if antibiotics were used to treat a sick bird there is antibiotic residue in the meat, but this is untrue," Zimmerman says.

Responsibly-Raised Turkey

This one is dangerous in that it can mean whatever the marketer wants it to mean. "That is why it is important that if you are interested in a turkey with specific traits you do your research and find out what the company or farmer actually means by the terms they use," says Zimmerman.

And outside of all that terminology, there are also no meaningful nutritional differences.

"Saying one production method produces a more nutritious or healthier bird is a lie," Zimmerman quips. It's great that consumers have such a wide variety of choices in the turkey they buy. If they want to support a specific farm or production style, they can, but all turkey raised in the United States today is perfectly safe and equally nutritious.

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