Turkey Talk: What Do Labels Like “Young,” “Fresh” And “Natural” Actually Mean?

Image courtesy of poopoorama

Whether you’re strolling down the supermarket aisle or perusing online grocers’ offerings ahead of Thanksgiving, you’re bound to see turkeys with a wide range of labels: “young,” “fresh,” “premium” and other distinctions that you may think you understand… but you probably don’t.

If you’re picky about what you eat, knowing what the labels mean can make a big difference — for example, just because a turkey is labeled “fresh,” that doesn’t mean it was slaughtered on the farm this morning and trucked down the street to the grocery store.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports have explained the various labels in the past you may come across, as well as other outlets like NPR’s The Salt blog, which we also referenced for guidance.

Once you’ve settled on a size for your holiday bird, the guide below will be helpful in making your final choice:

Fresh: Again, this bird was not hanging out on the farm with his bros this morning, it just means the turkey has never been below 26°F. This label could also be, “Never Frozen.”

Frozen: Speaks for itself, mostly. This means poultry was held at 0°F or below. “Previously frozen” may also be used to mean the same thing.

Free-range: Was your turkey running free on the plains? Maybe, or maybe not. This label means that an animal has spent a good portion of its life outdoors. But in order to gain that distinction, the U.S. Department of Agriculture only requires that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day.” Four hours a day? Perhaps. Five minutes? Could be.

Organic: Food has to be produced without most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and without antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or irradiation to earn this label, and animals had to have had access to the outdoors. A diet of organic feed free of animal byproducts is also required. Our siblings over at Consumer Reports recommend buying organic because of that absence of antibiotics.

No hormones administered: Beware this label — its claim means nothing, considering hormones are already prohibited in poultry production. That’s like a label saying, “This Turkey Is Not A Cow.”

No antibiotics administered: This means exactly what it says. There’s no verification system in place, but the USDA is accountable for proper use of the claim.

Natural: Consumer Reports takes issue with this label, which means that the turkey doesn’t contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. The label is not a verified claim, and says nothing about whether the animal ate a natural diet or how it was raised. Because there’s no government definition for the word, the claim is based on the processor’s word alone.

Cage-Free: No turkeys are raised in cages — more than 95% of all commercial turkeys live in open houses, according to the ASPCA. So again, this is basically a meaningless label.

Young: This bird is not the poultry equivalent of veal — it just means that it was killed at the same age as most other turkeys, which is between 16 and 18 weeks. There’s no USDA definition for “young” turkeys, but if a turkey is older than a year when it’s slaughtered, it must be labeled “yearling” or “mature.”

Premium: Is this the best meat around? Again, the label is pretty much worthless. Any company can choose to call their birds “premium.”

Heritage breed: You’ll find this label on traditional animal breeds, which are raised to support biodiversity. They’re relatively pricey and hard to come by, but you can order heritage breeds online.

Shopping for a turkey? Here’s how to read the labels [Consumer Reports]
Premium, Young And Natural: The Turkey Labels We Cluck-Cluck Over [The Salt]