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What You Should Know About ‘Free-Range’ Turkey

What You Should Know About ‘Free-Range’ Turkey

Photo courtesy of Chris Loves Julia.
Photo courtesy of Chris Loves Julia.

For those who haven’t yet purchased a Thanksgiving bird, a few words from our green expert Joyce Newman on “free-range” turkey.
Did you know that the term, “free-range,” often used on menus and turkey labels, doesn’t mean the birds actually went outside. Yes, it’s true!
In fact, according to government rules, turkey and other poultry producers just need to create “access to open air” for the turkeys. The amount of time they actually spend with this “access” isn’t specified and it could be just a few minutes a day in a screened enclosure.
Also, if you see the words “hormone-free” on poultry, be aware that marketers aren’t really being up front with you, since by law, poultry and pigs cannot be given hormones in the U.S.
Which claims can you trust? According to food experts at Consumer Reports, these five “good” labels are actually meaningful on turkey or other poultry:

  • “ USDA Organic”
  • “ USDA Process Verified”
  • “American grass-fed certified”
  •  “Animal welfare-approved”
  •   “Certified humane”
  • “No antibiotics used” (also, “raised without antibiotics” and “no antibiotics ever”)

Watch out for similar-sounding terms that are not approved by the federal government including “antibiotic free” and “no antibiotic residues.” The USDA does not authorize the use of these terms and in most cases, antibiotics were heavily used while raising the birds but were stopped for a certain period (days or weeks) before slaughter—to bring drug residue levels down below acceptable FDA thresholds.
Just some food for thought.
For more information about labeling, see Fresh From The Source’s Poultry Primer and to learn more about shopping for and cooking turkey, check out this article from Consumer Reports GreenerChoices.
—Joyce H. Newman
Joyce H. Newman, a Garden Variety contributing writer, covers gardening topics, food matters and environmental issues. The former editor of Consumer Reports, which evaluates environmental claims on green product labels, she holds a certificate in horticulture from the New York Botanical Garden.


  1. Natalia at Hot, Cheap & Easy
    November 22, 2013 at 5:50 am

    We order our birds from local farmers….my feeling is that if you didn’t raise it yourself or know the person who did, you’re taking your chances! However, that kind of mentality also becomes very expensive/time-consuming very quickly. One does what one can! Thanks for the informative piece and Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. The Editors of Garden Variety
      November 22, 2013 at 5:53 am

      Buying and eating local is always a good thing, Natalia. Thank you for stopping by and Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

  2. katharinetrauger
    November 22, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Grow your own! 😉

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