Shopping for a turkey? Here’s how to read the labels

Consumer Reports News: November 21, 2008 02:12 PM

If you're buying a holiday turkey this year, the first thing that comes to mind is probably size. But you might also want to choose your turkey based on how it was raised or processed, among other factors. Let these labels be your guide. You'll find them on turkeys at your local grocer, farmers' market, or online.

Organic. To qualify for this label, food must be produced without most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and without antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or irradiation. Organic animals must have access to the outdoors and must eat organic feed free of animal byproducts.

Free-range. This label suggests that an animal has spent a good portion of its life outdoors. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rule for the label's use on poultry is merely that outdoor access be made available for "an undetermined period each day." That means if a coop door was open for just 5 minutes a day, regardless of whether the birds went outside, the product could legally be labeled "free-range."

No hormones administered. This claim is meaningless because hormones are prohibited in poultry production. So any label on a turkey that makes this claim is only telling you what's already the case by federal law.

No antibiotics administered. This means what it says, so when used truthfully, has meaning. Although the USDA is accountable for proper use of the claim, there is no verification system in place.

Natural. When applied to poultry and meat, this label means the product doesn't contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. What it doesn't mean is that the animal ate a natural diet or was raised naturally. Since "natural" is not a verified claim, it's based on the processor's word alone.

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 at Heritage Foods USA or LocalHarvest.

Fresh. This label means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26°F.

Frozen. Poultry held at 0°F or below must be labeled, "frozen" or "previously frozen".

CR's Take. The organic label provides the best assurance that a turkey was raised and processed with healthful practices. But since organic poultry can cost double nonorganic, consider a "natural" turkey raised without antibiotics, as a compromise. If you can buy directly from a local farm, you might find those options for less. To find out what's behind any "free-range" claims, you'll have to inquire with the farmer or manufacturer.

Kristi Wiedemann, science and policy analyst, CR Greener Choices

Read more on holiday eating without the guilt. and for more on food labeling and safety,  visit the Eco-labels center at

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