The Holiday Turkey: Free-Range, Organic or Regular?

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A turkey in a pastoral setting is just a picture, not reality.
A Heritage Turkey in a pastoral setting. Not quite today’s industrial-scale turkey farming.

Almost 70 million turkeys will be served this holiday season in the U.S. What’s the difference between an organic, Heritage, free-range and regular grocery store turkey? Two things: how the turkey was raised and what did the bird eat. There’s quite a difference between turkey types, and also quite a story behind the 110 pounds of poultry the average American consumes each year.

Conventional turkey

Sometime in November, many Thanksgiving hostesses will throw a 12-18 pound fresh or frozen turkey into their grocery cart. The turkey price per pound will range between $1.50 to $2.00 per pound. A turkey labeled “fresh” was most likely raised and slaughtered months before purchase. A fresh turkey (ten percent of birds) is chilled down to 26 ℉. Frozen turkeys are chilled down to 0 ℉.

Americans consume 225 percent more poultry than we did in the 1960s. Poultry is a commodity product surviving on razor-thin margins explaining how consumers pay around $2 per pound for turkey.

In order to meet this demand, conventional poultry farming is large-scale industry. Holiday turkeys are not clucking around farms in outdoor pastures, but are bred and raised more like widgets in contained animal feeding operations, called CAFOs .

A heads-up: the next bit isn’t for the faint-at-heart. Turkeys are artificially inseminated because todays’ male birds are bred so large that they can’t stand up mate naturally. Hatchlings are processed by the thousands, kind of widget-like. Warning, this hatchling video is tough to watch. Birds are grown to size in massive houses and their beaks and toes are clipped to reduce bird-to-bird injury. Conventional birds rarely see the sun and often live in the flock of 20,000 or so’s manure. Turkeys eat grain feed. Because of consumer backlash, many producers are scaling back, or eliminating, hormones and antibiotics in poultry feed. Though, Sunderson Farms is standing its ground and proudly continuing antibiotic use, even though research links animal hormones to human health issues. To meet the holiday demand, turkeys are raised throughout the year and quick-chilled to be fresh or frozen.

Hatchlings are processed by the thousands. These birds are getting their nails clipped to reduce bird-to-bird injury.
Hatchlings are processed by the thousands. These birds are getting their nails clipped to reduce bird-to-bird injury.

Organic Turkey

Organic food and livestock farming is regulated and administered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For turkeys, organic means the birds are bred and raised humanely, are fed organic feed, live in houses or pastures with no pesticides and sludge, have access to outdoors, and have clean bedding, and are not fed antibiotics or hormones. Organic poultry is raised on farms that practice sustainable farming. The organic label and method is a stringent standard and expensive to practice, explaining organic turkey’s $3 to $4 per pound price tag.

According the USDA’s spokesperson Samuel Jones, organic livestock rules have recently been strengthened. “The current organic livestock regulation left open to interpretation factors such as year-round access to outdoors and how much space is required per animal.” said Jones. Updated organic livestock regulations will be completed during Obama’s term.

Free-Range Turkey

Now things get tricky. The regulated USDA free-range and free-roaming definition is that producers must demonstrate to the Agency that poultry has had free access to the outside 51 percent of the bird’s natural growing life. 

Many sustainable producers who practice humane livestock practices choose to not go organic. Often these sustainably practicing producers use the free-range label. To ensure the free-range product is what you expect, read the label carefully for detail from the producer.  Often producers will explain on the label how they raise and feed their poultry. If there is a knowledgable butcher on staff, ask for details. If you’re curious, check out the producer’s web site.

Heritage and Locally Farm-raised Turkeys

Heritage Turkeys are a hot item now. Today’s turkeys are the Broad-Breasted White variety. Heritage Turkeys are other native varieties and usually grown in the wild rendering more muscle and dark meat.

Baltimore is lucky because we have access to close-by farms that sell whole and fresh turkeys. Search Maryland’s Best web site for the local farm and turkey type you want for your holiday table.

Laurel Peltier
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