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What’s the Word: Turkey Labeling…It’s More complicated than your family relationships.


You are a good person.   It is important to you that your Thanksgiving Day turkey lived a good, quality life.  You want to know that your turkey spent its days running free, eating the greenest of grass, while clucking to and fro. Yes, and so you do what any compassionate person would do, and drive your Prius to the nearest natural grocery store to find the best treated bird on the market.  You’re willing to pay extra for it, too. After you load your cart with organic sweet potatoes, a whole pumpkin to make pie from scratch, and freshly picked green beans for your famous casserole, you head to the meat case to pick your bird.
You are inundated with labels battling for your attention. Labels like cage-free, hormone-free, humane, organic, young, antibiotic free, and the list goes on.  You are so overwhelmed, you contemplate grabbing a Tofurky and saying, “Cluck it.” (I know, bad joke).  But this is Thanksgiving, damn it.  And besides, what the hell is Tofurkey?

I’ll hand it to you, poultry labeling can complicate Thanksgiving more than your homophobic Aunt Susie from Texas.  old-womanFood labeling in general is complicated and full of deceit, so how do you know which holiday bird to pick?  After reviewing the USDA’s labeling regulations in a document awesomely entitled, Turkey Raised by the Rules, here is the low-down on all that confusing labeling.


Saying a bird is “natural” is about as informative as telling you that your turkey is not from Mars.  The term “natural” does NOT mean that Billy the turkey was walking through the grass on a bright, sunny day before being slaughtered in a kindness ceremony of thanks.  In fact, it has nothing to do with the bird’s living environment. It also does NOT mean that your turkey was fed non-GMO food or waturkey-bubbles raised free of antibiotic.  It is a ridiculously misleading term that simply means the product does not contain any artificial flavor, coloring ingredients, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient
and that the product is not more than minimally processed.  Big whoop.


Fresh seems like an important feature in your poultry.  You don’t want an old ass turkey on your day of thanks.  As it turns out, the term “fresh” actually has nothing to do with the time between slaughter and sale, as this label might lead you to believe. Rather, it means that the turkey was never frozen, and has not been cooled to below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.

No Added Hormones:

No added hormones means absolutely nothing, because every turkey has no added hormones.  Becky can’t even blame her bad turkey attitude on the farmers.  But it sounds so superiorly wholesome, doesn’t it? To put it plainly, this verbiage is just stupid, and frankly, I think it is done to deceive the consumer into thinking they are buying an antibiotic-free turkey (see below), which is totally different.  Added hormones are not allowed in raising poultry, so if this labeling is on your turkey, there will also be a disclaimer saying,  “Federal regulations do not permit the use of hormones in poultry.”


Raised Without Antibiotics:

This is an important label.  Prioritize purchasing an antibiotic free turkey! The term “no antibiotics added” or “raised without the use of antibiotics” means that turkeys were not given antibiotics for growth production and only at times of illness.  Ideally, you want to look for a label stating that this has been verified by the USDA.

While the USDA requires that all turkeys given antibiotics for growth or otherwise,  have a “withdrawal” period from antibiotics before slaughter, one can assume that the turkey likely has remnants of the the drugs in its system, or at the very least a raging vaginal yeast infection (I’m joking on the last part!).  On a more serious note, there is growing evidence that giving animals antibiotics causes antibiotic-resistant strains of illness or superbugs. Like many commonsense laws that Canada and Europe have seamlessly adopted, the practice of pumping meat with antibiotics is still commonplace in the United States, so be sure you select a turkey that specifically states that it was raised without antibiotics.


Vegetarian Fed/Grain Fed:

Insert eye roll.  These fat suckers are eating corn like all its brothers and sisters down the street at the low-brow plant.  The only difference is that they aren’t eating food with any animal by-products, which is a real thing.  And while it is super disgusting to think of your turkey eating a turkey carcass as an animal by-product, the irony with this label is that turkeys are actually omnivores and enjoy worms, bugs, as well as a variety of plants.


Non GMOs:

The non-GMO label means the turkey’s feed must be comprised of less than 0.9 percent of genetically modified crops. Verification is required for this label. You are what they eat, so puts some consideration into finding a turkey with this label.

Cage Free:

Again, this is a label that is simply touting the industry minimum and is deserving of another eye roll.  No turkeys in the U.S. are raised in cages.  That said, it also doesn’t mean that Billy the turkey is earning playground time outside for good behavior.

Free Range:

In order to be labeled”free range,” the turkey must spend 51 percent or more of its time outdoors.  While it is still a far cry from freedom, this is about as close as you will get to a turkey who frolicked in the grass under the bright blue sky.


This is the no-nonsense label. To be labeled “organic,” the turkey must be raised organically on certified organic land, fed certified organic feed, given no antibiotics, and must have outdoor access.



It sounds like this turkey had some good hygiene.  Turns out your kosher bird was probably caged and treated just as its non-kosher buddies. The only thing that sets this turkeys apart is the slaughter house  adhered to the kosher standards under Rabbinical supervision.

Heritage Turkey:

The term “Heritage Turkey” refers to the breed of turkey.  These are all the rage right now.  Heritage turkeys run and fly, and according to Mary’s Turkeys, “These extra activities result in larger thigh meat and slightly less breast meat than found on a typical turkey.”  Sounds like I’m describing my very own body type.

My two cents: Opt for an USDA-certified organic turkey.  The “organic” standards encompass the important labels like non-GMO feed, free range and raised without antibiotics.  Prioritize these practices.  You can find organic turkeys at a natural grocery store like Whole Foods and Sprouts.  Even Costco carries organic turkeys.  You can also order your turkey online. Mary’s Turkeys is probably the most well-known online organic supplier.

There you have it.  I can’t give you advice on how to survive the day with your messed up family, except to say be sure you stock up on booze, but I hope I made your holiday bird selection process a little less complicated.


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