Turkey Buying for the Conscious Consumer

By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Office of Sustainability

It’s just one week from Thanksgiving and it seems like I can’t go in any grocery store without being absolutely bombarded by advertisements for the main event: The turkey. And while conventional grocery stores seem to have entered into a bidding war over the cheapest price per pound, the slightly more health-conscious markets I try to frequent seem to have a whole different strategy.

“All-Natural!” screamed one red and orange sign I saw during my visit to Sprouts Farmers Market last week. “Free Range” claimed a label on a bird I ran into in the “natural foods” section of my nearest Smith’s. And some of Whole Foods’ turkeys boasted proudly (in squiggly green script, no less) that they were “certified organic.”

Now, I consider myself a pretty educated food consumer. I avoid processed foods like a plague, I try to buy local or organic produce when I can, and I know all about corporate greenwashing and never buy a product just because it’s “natural” or a “conscious choice.” But, truth be told, I had no idea what the labels on meat products mean. With claims of “no antibiotics added,” “free-range,” “humanely raised,” “vegetarian fed,” and more slapped on every turkey in sight, it’s hard to sift through the labels and decide what is (and what isn’t) a conscious choice. So what’s a consumer to do?

Well, research is great, but this close to Thanksgiving, feel free to rely on the following turkey label cheat sheet, based on information I found about the most common labels from the USDA, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Mayo Clinic.

Turkey Labels Cheatsheet

turkey-natural Natural:
I was under the impression that any label claiming a product is “natural” was just a marketing ploy. However, when applied to meat, the “natural” label is actually enforced by the USDA. Natural meat products are those that are minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients added to them. However, there are no requirements attached to the USDA “natural” label regarding the treatment of the animals prior to slaughter, so it has little relevance concerning animal welfare.
turkey-free-range Free-Range:
This is another label that is also regulated by the USDA. “Free-range” birds must be raised in indoor open space instead of cages and have constant access to fresh food and water, as well as access to the outdoors. However, the Humane Society points out that the amount of time the birds have access to the outdoors is undefined, as is the condition of the land they have access to. So, if green pastures filled with wild turkeys is what you’re thinking when you hear “free-range,” that might be the case, but also might not be. Also, the USDA regulates meat, but not eggs under the “Free-Range” label.
turkey-cagefree Cage-Free:
This label means that birds are able to roam freely within an enclosed space and have unlimited access to food and fresh water. But birds kept for meat, not eggs, aren’t usually caged anyway. In addition, this label is completely voluntary and is not regulated by the USDA or anyone else regarding meat nor eggs. Hopefully, companies are being truthful about the label, but no one is forcing them to be.
turkey-hormones.png Hormone-Free or No Added Hormones:
This label doesn’t apply to birds at all. The USDA has never allowed hormones or steroids to be used in any animals other than cows. So if you see it slapped on poultry packaging, know that it’s advertising nothing more than standard practice.
turkey-vegfed.png Vegetarian Fed:
This is a label applied when meat animals haven’t been fed anything including animal by-products. However, it’s not regulated by any agency.
turkey-organic.png USDA Certified Organic:
In Salt Lake, “organic” is probably the best widely available label to rely on to gauge humane treatment of animals and meat’s healthfulness. To qualify for USDA organic certification, meat animals have to be raised in a way that meets welfare standards, not be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, be fed only certified organic feed, and have access to the outdoors. Again though, the duration, frequency and quality of outdoor access are not defined.

Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.

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