How To Know What’s Really In Your Turkey This Thanksgiving

turkey packaging labels

Flickr/Tim Sackton

In the United States, 46 million turkeys are purchased for Thanksgiving every year. (Good news for grocery stores, not-so-good news for turkeys.) And many of us take an interest in picking the birds that were treated kindly when they were alive, searching for labels like “cage-free” and “all natural.” However, many of those terms are misleading.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, turkeys in the U.S. are never raised in cages, rendering the “cage-free” label on your store-bought turkey pretty much meaningless. In fact, the abundance of misleading food labels can make shopping for a cruelty-free turkey (or as cruelty-free as possible) a stressful experience. But we’re here to help. Below are five decoded food labels you should avoid if you’re looking to buy a higher-welfare turkey this Thanksgiving, as well as six tips for sourcing your beautiful bird.

What The Labels Really Mean

turkey packaging labels

Pexels/Nicolas Postiglioni

1. Cage-Free

As mentioned earlier, turkeys are never raised in cages in the States, so this claim doesn’t actually tell you anything and might as well not be there at all.

2. Hormone-Free

The United States Department of Agriculture prohibits the use of hormones on turkeys, so this claim is also meaningless.

3. Humanely Raised Or Humanely Handled

These terms offer no assurance that the turkey had a better life because they’re not clearly defined or independently verified by the USDA.

4. Natural, Naturally Raised Or All Natural

According to the USDA, turkeys labeled as “natural” must be “minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” But the agency does not define “artificial,” so turkeys raised in conventional conditions and fed regular doses of antibiotics can still be labeled as “natural.” If you choose “natural” turkey products, you’re probably avoiding some extra additives and coloring in your food, but the term doesn’t tell you much about the welfare of your turkey.

5. Young

An average turkey in the wild can live for years, but for convenience’s sake, modern turkeys are bred to grow to “slaughter weight” in just a few weeks. Therefore, most turkeys bred for consumption in the U.S. are slaughtered at a young age. Since turkeys bred with less intensive growth rates may suffer less from lameness and could experience a better quality of life, avoid buying turkeys that are labeled “young” at the grocery store.

How To Find Your Perfect Turkey

turkey packaging labels

Wikimedia Commons

1. Involve your local grocer.

Call the supermarket from which you’re planning to buy your Thanksgiving turkey and ask the manager if they have or will be able to order turkeys from farms that are audited by Certified Humane, a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to monitoring and improving the lives of farm animals for slaughter. Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership certifications are also ideal. The ASPCA offers a list of brands that meet at least one of these turkey welfare standards.

2. Gather friends and appeal to your local store manager.

If your local grocery store doesn’t plan to stock higher-welfare turkeys before Thanksgiving Day, grab your crew and go talk to the store manager with an ASPCA request card. The management at grocery stores is more likely to purchase welfare-certified turkeys if they know that multiple consumers are interested in buying the product.

3. Search for nearby stores that offer higher-welfare turkeys.

Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved have search engines that allow you to locate retailers that sell higher-welfare turkeys nearby. Global Animal Partnership products, on the other hand, are primarily sold at Whole Foods.

4. Buy your turkey online.

If you can’t find a grocer near you that sells higher-welfare turkeys, consider shopping for one online. Certain welfare-certified brands like White Oak Pastures and Ayrshire Farm sell their turkeys online and can ship them across the country.

5. Buy directly from a welfare-certified farm in your state.

The ASPCA offers a list of welfare-certified farms by state. If you find one in your state, visit their website to see if they sell turkeys directly from the farm, at local stores or at farmers markets.

“Informed consumers can choose turkeys from more humane farms or replace the turkey with plant-based alternatives,” Daisy Freund, the director of Farm Animal Welfare, told Swirled. “Both choices show the turkey industry that there is no appetite for this kind of suffering, on Thanksgiving or any day.”

6. Visit your local farmers market and ask pointed questions.

If you find that your farmers market sells turkeys, ask the farmers about their practices with the following questions:

  • Were the birds raised indoors or outdoors? Farmers should be raising birds with outdoor access — ideally pasture access.
  • Were the turkeys a fast-growing industrial breed or were they slower-growing because of their breed or due to daily exercise? Farmers should be using a slower-growing breed or encouraging the birds to exercise so that they grow at a natural rate.
  • Were their beaks, toes or snoods cut? Ideally, farmers should not cut beaks, toes or snoods, and if any of these procedures are done, anesthetics should be used.
  • What is the farm’s antibiotics policy? Antibiotics should only be used to treat illnesses.
turkey packaging labels

Pexels/Mark Dalton

Now that you’re fully equipped to shop more humanely for your turkey this Thanksgiving, you can feel good that you’ve taken the extra steps to ensure that the bird you choose lived a better life and is providing the best nutrition possible to those sitting at your dinner table. If you still have questions and are looking for a more in-depth guide for shopping for that higher-welfare turkey, you can refer to the ASPCA’s full guide to understanding turkey labels.

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