What Your Thanksgiving Turkey's Food Labels Really Mean

turkeyThanksgiving isn't nearly as easy as it probably used to be. Now with all the different types of turkeys you can buy and the fact that some turkeys are raised in extremely irresponsible, scary, even abusive ways that can make for a sick bird (and in turn, recalls and sick humans), we have to be even savvier as consumers. But even when we're determined to go out and get a responsible, healthy bird, it can be really, really difficult with grocery stores waving freebies and other incentives in your face. For instance, my almost mother-in-law just came home with a FREE turkey from the grocery store. She was so happy to report that it was "all natural." Face. Palm. Too bad any ol' turkey should be at the bare minimum all natural. It's a freakin' turkey!

So, in an effort to outsmart goofy, manipulative, meaningless food labels like "all natural," here's a round-up of the labeling you might find on turkeys this year and what it really means (or doesn't mean at all!) ... 


Free-range: This is a label that's regulated by the USDA and indicates that the turkeys have free access to the outside rather than being confined to a cage. Aside from simply being provided “access” to the outside, this label has no other standards and allows for a wide range of living environments.

Fresh: You'd think this might just be a marketing term without any real meaning at all, but actually, turkeys labeled as “fresh” must not be cooled to a temperature lower than 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this is below the freezing temperature of water, turkey meat does not freeze solidly at this temperature and is therefore not considered frozen. This temperature allows for maximum suppression of bacterial growth while maintaining the meat's integrity.

Kosher: These turkeys must be grown and processed according to Jewish Dietary Law and certified kosher by a rabbi. 

Natural: This one can be completely meaningless because it's so loosely used to define a "minimally-processed turkey." (Whatever that means!)

"No added preservatives, hormones, steroids": By law, preservatives, hormones, and steroids are not allowed in any turkey -- so if you see a label noting that they're not "added," that's just reiterating the obvious. This doesn't mean, however, that the turkey's feed is free and clear of those things.

More from The Stir: 'Eco-Friendly' Food Labels Are So Confusing They're Meaningless

USDA organic: If it says "USDA organic," the turkey is actually regulated by the government and needs to be 95 percent or more organic. It also needs to be fed organic feed.

Made with organic ingredients: Not sure what kinds of turkey might be just "made with" organic ingredients -- maybe a pre-seasoned/pre-cooked one? -- but if this labeling means 70 percent must be organic. The other 30 percent can be, well, whatever.

What labels do you look for while shopping for your turkey?


Image via Steve Johnson/Flickr

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