Let's Talk Turkey!

Posted: October 31, 2016

Cage free, non-GMO, natural, fresh, antibiotic free, range free, organic - oh my! What does it all mean when it comes to purchasing your Thanksgiving turkey?
Photo by Scott Bauer. US Department of Agriculture. Large white turkey female.

Photo by Scott Bauer. US Department of Agriculture. Large white turkey female.

With all the different terms you find on the label, it is understandable why consumers are confused about what turkey to purchase. In general the label terminology falls into three categories relating to quality, regulatory and production claims. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) strictly defines and approves all labels on turkey products before the product can be packaged. Additionally, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors label usage and product formulation to assure adherence to the regulations.

So what do the different terms on labels mean? Let’s look at these based on the above.

Quality Information
Grades are based on uniform standards developed by USDA and are voluntary in nature. Buyers must request and pay for product grading. The majority of product sold at the retail level is Grade A, which is the highest quality. Birds with a B or C grade are usually used for other processed types of turkey products.

Regulatory Information
Natural – refers to how the animal is processed not raised. In this case, processing will not alter the product and it contains no artificial ingredients or added color. The label must state what the meaning of “natural” is such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”

Fresh – means whole poultry and/or cuts that have never been below 26°F (the temperature at which turkey freezes). This term cannot be used if the product contains sodium/potassium nitrate/nitrite or has a brine concentration of 10% or more.

Organic – means that it complies with all USDA Organic Labeling Standards

Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO, GM) – USDA guidance allows negative claims (non GMO or no GE ingredients) when products contain no GM ingredients. The law does not deem an animal genetically modified because if consumed GM feed. USDA will allow negative claims to let consumers know if meat derived from poultry has not been fed GM feed.

Production Claims
Cage Free – turkeys roam freely inside large barns with constant access to food and water and protection from extreme weather and predators. They are not raised in cages.

Free Range – turkeys roam freely inside large barns but have the option of outdoor access. They must have “continuous free access to the outdoors” for over 51% of their lives. These birds are also considered cage free.

Conditional Antibiotic Use- certain antibiotics are safe and allowed to be used. To clearly let the consumer know how antibiotics are used, labels such as “no antibiotics used for growth promotion – antibiotics only used for treatment and prevention of illness” can be used. May not use “antibiotic free” if any antibiotics have ever been used, even to treat a sick bird.

No Antibiotics Ever/Antibiotic Free – sufficient documentation available to prove antibiotics have never been used through the lifespan.

No Hormones; Raised without Hormones; No Steroids – hormones and steroids are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” or “no steroids” cannot be used on the label unless it is followed by a statement saying “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones/steroids.”

Hopefully this will help decode some of the wording used on food labels when it comes to selecting your bird this Thanksgiving. But that is just the start, for more information on turkey and for recipes for all those leftovers visit .

Contact Information

Sharon McDonald, MEd, RD, LDN
  • Extension Educator, Food Safety & Quality
Phone: 814-865-6953