Before you pay more for that happy-go-lucky free-range bird that spent its days wandering over hill and dale eating nuts and berries off the ground, you should know that the USDA has a less romanticized idea of what qualifies as free-range.
For the USDA to designate a bird as free-range, the producer must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. When I visited an organic free-range turkey producer in Michigan earlier this year, access to the outdoors meant a caged-in area attached at one end of the barn, perhaps 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep. In the barn, 10,000 toms stood breast to breast.
Cage-free means just that, and little more. Cage-free is not free-range as the birds aren't given access to the outdoors.
When I asked a certified organic turkey farmer what was involved in raising organic birds, his response was "a lot of record keeping." More importantly, organic turkeys can only consume organic feed. In the Midwest, feed mostly comprises ground corn and soybean meal.
Turkeys with no artificial ingredients or added colors that are minimally processed may be labeled natural. Natural is not the same as organic.
The USDA does not allow hormones in poultry production, so the label "no hormones added" cannot legally be used unless it is followed by a statement reading "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
Turkeys that are labeled "fresh" have never had their internal temperatures below 26 degrees, but individual packages of raw poultry meat labeled "fresh" can be anywhere from 1 to 2 degrees below 26 degrees within inspected establishments according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Don't be misled by the label on your Thanksgiving turkey this week. My friend Tom Elko of Minnesota Monitor looks into the USDA-defined terms you'll find at the market. I, for one, was surprised:
at 9:11 AM