The holiday season has started, and for those striv-ing to eat cage-free, free-range and all-natural turkey, organic turkey is selling for approximately $3 per pound more than an inorganic bird.
Labels, however, can be misleading and the mean-ings of “cage-free,” “free-range” and “all-natural” have changed over time. The labels contain loose defini-tions set by the United States Department of Agri-culture for turkey farms to use on their birds.
Cage-free does not mean there is not a cage, free-range turkey does not mean the bird can go outside, and buying all-natural turkey doesn’t mean organic.
“Natural is a broad or open ended concept. It’s la-beled as a product containing no labeled ingredients or added colors. It usually comes with a label claim-ing ‘no label added’ or maybe ‘grass fed,’” said Reasor’s Co-Manager Robert Ball in an email interview.
Butterball remained silent and refused an inter-view about their turkey. According to their website, Butterball turkeys contain no artificial flavor, coloring or synthetic ingredient. It is minimally processed and all-natural.
“In order for the USDA to designate as ‘free-range,’ the producer must demonstrate to an agency that the poultry has been allowed access to [the] out-side. That doesn’t mean birds are always outside, but have access to some form of fenced area other than the turkey house in which they are raised. This could simply be a two-foot cage connected to the side of a building,” said Reasor’s Meat and Seafood Director, John Beuter, in an email. “While ‘cage-free’ means they are not raised in close confinement of cage, they aren’t raised in an outdoor environment either.”
Turkeys were raised outside on the farm during the 1930s and 1940s. They had access to grass and the sun without being kept inside. The USDA has since changed the meaning of “free-range” to meet today’s standards for growing turkey.
Diestel Family Turkey Ranch’s family secret No. 1 is to walk the flock every day. It pays close atten-tion to the health of their birds by spending time with them in fields, observing their behaviors and making sure they have the best environment possible. This is rare in turkey farms because typically there isn’t enough land. Turkey is considered free-range if there are approximately 100 turkeys per acre of farmland.
An organic turkey has never been given antibiotics. Livestock handlers can administer up to two antibiot-ics, if necessary, to an inorganic turkey. It is possible to raise organic turkeys, but the cost will be three times as high as a normal turkey for sale. Butterball sells an all-natural turkey for .50 cents per pound, while Di-estel Family Turkey Ranch sells its organic bird for $3.99 per pound.
According to Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, a free-range environment allows the birds to get plenty of exercise and fresh air, and their careful farming man-agement and strict sanitation practices eliminate the need to administer antibiotics.
“I’ve done this a long time, almost 30 years, and I truly think in five or six years, everything will be an-tibiotic free. We’re headed in that direction,” said an anonymous source who is a certified livestock handler. “When I started, I had seven or eight medications, but now I have access to two. My main focus is to be ahead of the program. I look at the ventilation issues, and if necessary have more air dispersed in the room. Let’s keep them from getting sick. I don’t want to use antibiotics. I don’t want to have to use antibiotics.”
According to the handler, genetic engineering is not used on their turkeys either. Many organizations keep tabs on turkey farms. A turkey will have a life span of two years, and studies are done on the birds through scientific observations. Their goal is to match the superior turkeys together through a pedigree pro-cess. For example, two big birds may be paired so the egg can have the best genetics from each parent.
“We can get our turkey to 16 pounds in 88 days, but it used to take 128 days. We’re trying to make a more efficient bird,” said the handler. “What I’ve seen are animals that don’t stand stress very well because they gain weight very fast. I arrive and stand in the farm for 30 seconds to observe the air. The birds now are superior to [those] in the past, but we still need to make sure their heath is the first priority.”
Tyson Foods was first to claim they didn’t use hor-mones or steroids in its turkey. Other companies now use hormone-free labels on their birds because con-sumers assumed the poultry must contain hormones if there isn’t a label. Butterball advertises its free-range turkey as being all-natural, never-frozen, gluten-free and raised without hormones on American farms, but Diestel also says its turkey never contains antibi-otics, growth enhancers, hormones, gluten or animal by-products. More companies have added this label due to the assumptions, but hormones are now pro-hibited from use in poultry.
The farmers at Cargill receive biannual growth certification tests. There are plaques with rules listed which breeders have to follow at the farms. The breeders don’t want to be associated with a handler’s transgressions, and the handlers don’t want to be in association with a breeder’s transgressions. It would affect buyers, such as Walmart, and place them with a farm who has a negative connotation on their name. Large companies hire outside independent auditors to visit random farms. Cargill checks their farms semi-annually, and they will give the farms scores.
While shopping for the best holiday bird, remem-ber turkey companies dance around meanings put on their labels, and the USDA has allowed them to do so. Organic is the only label on turkey which means the bird has not been altered and must meet USDA standards including the animal was raised on certi-fied organic land, fed certified organic feed, and has outdoor access. Cage-free implies the chickens freely roam indoors but not necessarily outdoors. Free-range refers to poultry, which live cage-free with access to some sort of outdoors. Words and labels can be mis-leading, don’t let them be.