You are graciously hosting Thanksgiving this year, whether it is with family or your group of friends. But if you are hosting, that means you are likely providing the turkey. So you go to the grocery store and you are inundated with options in the poultry aisle. There are so many terms on the turkey labels and you have no idea what to pick. A once simple task has become overwhelming. But don’t worry! This month, we discuss the various terms found on turkey labels and what they mean, if anything, and how these label terms are regulated in the United States.
Federal & State Regulations and Terms
There are a few principal federal statutes that govern food labeling in the U.S., but the ones relevant to turkey include the the Poultry Products Inspections Act (PPIA), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). The agencies responsible for implementing these statutes are the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Generally, poultry food label regulations are passed by Congress with the intention that labeling is completely regulated at the federal level. Therefore, any state regulation addressing poultry food labels must align with federal regulations, or the courts may find the state regulation unenforceable. This is primarily due to the fluidity of poultry sales between states, and it would be difficult to manage fifty or more different food label standards.
The statutes described above, however, do not necessarily define the terms commonly found on turkey and other food labels, so the FSIS published a glossary for meat and poultry terms. The list of terms below are ones that the FSIS has defined and ensures all food labels use the terms truthfully and accurately, pursuant to the FPLA.
- Certified: The USDA has evaluated the product for class, grade, or other quality measures.
- Free range/free roaming: The turkeys must have access to the outdoors, but crowded areas are still permitted. The term access indicates the birds do not have to actually go outside though. Rather, the turkey must have the ability to go outside at some point for an unspecified period of time, and it is plausible the turkey may never go outside if it so chooses.
- Fresh: The turkey has never been below 26 degrees fahrenheit.
- Frozen: The turkey has been held below 0 degrees fahrenheit.
- Fryer-roaster: This is a young turkey, typically less than 16 weeks in age.
- Halal and Zabiah Halal: Turkeys are slaughtered according to Islamic law and certified by a third-party.
- Hen or Tom: Hens are female turkeys and toms are male turkeys. The term generally indicates size as toms are typically larger than hens.
- Kosher: Turkeys are generally raised the same way as non-kosher turkeys, but are slaughtered according to kosher principles (under rabbinical supervision) and certified by a third-party.
- Natural: There are no artificial coloring or flavoring ingredients added to the turkey, and the turkey has been minimally processed, meaning it has not been fundamentally altered. If you are purchasing a whole, raw turkey or a raw turkey separated into different parts, the turkey has been minimally processed. Contrary to general belief, natural does not refer to how the turkey was raised, but instead how the turkey was processed. Therefore, the term natural does not indicate the bird was fed a high quality diet and spent afternoons meandering outside. It simply indicates there are no added ingredients in your raw turkey, which is what most individuals expect when buying raw poultry.
- No hormones: A USDA regulation prohibits growth hormones in turkeys, and if no hormones appears on the label, the statement “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” must also be on the label. This is an example of one misleading term, simply because it is unnecessary altogether.
- No antibiotics added: This claim indicates turkeys were only given antibiotics if they were sick and not for growth promotion or preventative measures. If the turkey was given antibiotics, there is a mandatory “withdrawal period,” and the turkey cannot receive antibiotics prior to slaughter. This period ensures there are minimal residual antibiotics in the turkey that could be passed to humans, and turkeys are routinely checked during slaughter to monitor residual antibiotic levels.
- Organic: The turkey farm must meet USDA’s certified organic program standards. Organic does not mean the turkey was raised humanely though; rather, the turkey is antibiotic free and meets the free range standards. For more information on the National Organic Program, visit: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic
- Young: The turkey is less than 8 months old.
Non-Regulated Standards and Terms
The following list of terms are other commonly seen terms on turkey labels, but the FSIS has not commented on their use pertaining to labels, and are therefore not regulated by a federal entity. This means that a supplier can put this on their label without having to necessarily meet a standard, requirement, guidance, or law. This also means the terms are not necessarily used consistently across suppliers.
- Heritage: These turkeys are historic breeds, and are more closely related to the wild turkey then the more conventional turkey we find today. Heritage turkeys are typically raised organically in pastures, but this can vary unless they are certified organic. There is a limited supply of heritage turkeys each year, and they tend to cost a significant amount more than the conventional turkey.
- Premium: There is no USDA standard or definition for this term, and therefore, the term has no meaning on a turkey label.
- Cage free: All turkeys are raised cage free because they are raised in houses or outside. This is another term that is not a true distinguisher between turkeys as cage free can me everything from being in a crowded, conventional poultry farm, to an operation with more space and access to outdoors. This term does not actually educate the consumer on differences in how birds may be treated.
- Humane: A company can develop its own standards, and the USDA does not regulate the standards. Therefore, this term can be deceiving as it is not based in a legal definition or requirement. It is thus important to see if this term is tied to any third-party certification, rather than an internal company standard.The third-party certifiers are discussed in more detail below.
- Vegetarian-fed/Grain-fed: The turkey’s diet was not supplemented with animal byproducts, and it was fed mainly corn. Interesting note though- turkeys, in their natural environment, eat plants, seeds, and fruits, along with insects, so they are inherently not vegetarian.
So we’ve discussed what’s regulated and what’s not, so now let’s explore the in-between: third-party certifiers that companies can employ to signify they treat their birds humanely. Third-party certifiers are most typically independent not-for-profits that has reviewed the farming and processing practices against specific standards for humane treatment, environmental impact, quality, and processing.
These certifiers vary and should be considered carefully when you think about your bird’s welfare if that’s important to your decision. The most common certifying organizations are American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership. If a turkey, or any meat for consumption, does not have one of these specific certification labels, it is likely the animal was raised according to standard conventional industry practices, which does not typically focus on the animal’s welfare. These certifications are in addition to the above label terms and may encompass some of the terms above, but primarily focus on the welfare of the bird from birth to slaughter.
- American Humane Certified: The standards for this organization are arguably not much better than standard industry practice for turkeys. Under this certification, access to outside is not obligatory and the turkey’s beak may be trimmed without pain relief. There are also standards for slaughter and transportation practices. For more information on American Humane Certified standards, visit: http://www.humaneheartland.org/.
- Animal Welfare Approved: All turkeys are predominantly raised outdoors on pasture or range, and beak trimming is prohibited under this certification. There are also standards for slaughter and transportation practices. Moreover, it is the only USDA-approved third-party certification. For more information on Animal Welfare Approved certifications for poultry, visit: https://awionline.org/content/poultry.
- Certified Humane: This certification has varying levels, and the label should be examined closely to distinguish these variations. Generally, turkey farmers are not obliged to provide outdoor access, but there are space requirements. Beak trimming is also limited to certain situations. Like the two previous certifications, there are practice standards for slaughter and transportation. For more information on Certified Humane’s standards, visit: http://certifiedhumane.org/how-we-work/our-standards/.
- Global Animal Partnership: This certification began as an initiative of Whole Foods, and GAP certified products are found only in their stores at the time. There are 5 different steps to this certification, with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest in regards to animal welfare. Step 1 begins with no crowding, cages, no crates, in the turkey houses, step 2 adds enriched environment meaning more material for exercise, step 3 has enhanced outdoor access, and steps 4 and 5 prohibit beak trimming and are pasture and turkey centered. Based on this step program, turkeys with a step 4 or 5 certification are ideal and offer the most humane life to the turkey. For more information on GAP’s turkey standards, visit: https://globalanimalpartnership.org/5-step-animal-welfare-rating-program/turkey-standards-application/
Explanation of Common Labels
We know this is a lot of info, and you may be freaking out that some of the terms you’ve relied upon have no meaning! Have no fear though, we’ve boiled down this info and below we have compiled a list of common terms found on a single turkey label that can actually help you determine what you are purchasing.
Premium, young turkey, hormone free, all natural, frozen : This particular bird is less than 8 months old, it has been minimally processed and there are no artificial ingredients in it, and it was held below 0 degrees fahrenheit. As stated above, no hormones or “hormone free” is a misleading term as turkeys have to be raised without hormones.
All natural turkey, never frozen, gluten free, raised without hormones : This bird has been minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. It has also never been stored below 26 degrees fahrenheit. *Note: all raw meat and poultry in its purest form is gluten free, beware of this label. The all natural term also indicates there are no added ingredients, including, gluten to the bird. As stated above, no hormones is a misleading term as turkeys have to be raised without hormones.
Young turkey, organic, free range : This turkey is less than 8 months old, and the farm abides by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which requires certification. Following the organic guidelines ensures the bird did not receive antibiotics and as this label further indicates, had access to the outdoors, and was not completely confined to a turkey house.
Antibiotic free turkey : Turkeys that are antibiotic free do not receive antibiotics as a preventative measure. Rather, they are only provided antibiotics when they are truly sick. This method minimizes the residual antibiotics left in the bird that humans may later consume.
Kosher frozen turkey : This turkey was most likely raised like all the other turkeys, but it was slaughtered according to kosher principles and a rabbi oversaw the slaughter. The turkey was then held below 0 degrees fahrenheit.
Navigating the grocery store this time of year is hard enough, so we hope this month’s post helps clear up the many terms you may find on a label while purchasing your turkey. For more information on food labels, visit: http://greenerchoices.org/, which is a wonderful resource published by Consumer Reports. Happy Turkey Day All!