When it comes to choosing your food, there's more to it than grabbing the closest thing off the grocery store shelf. In an ideal world, we all make an effort to buy organic produce and grass-fed beef whenever possible. But when Thanksgiving rolls around, you're probably thinking about the number of mouths you're feeding and how to bake the potatoes, pumpkin pie, and green bean casserole simultaneously rather than focusing on the origins of the main dish: your turkey.
Even if you're trying to pick one that's healthy, going by the labels on the turkeys themselves can easily steer you wrong. When it comes to claims made on turkey labels, "most of them are unregulated, undefined, and essentially meaningless," says Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). That's why we broke down the bogus and the best certs so you can feel good about what you feed your family this Thanksgiving—and every day after. (And, sorry vegetarians—even those meat substitutes might be fooling you.)
What to Ignore
Cage-Free: Buying cage-free is important when it comes to eggs, but when it comes to buying a bird? Not so much. Why? Turkeys aren't ever raised in cages in the U.S. (BTW, here's everything else you need to know about buying the healthiest eggs, since those labels are just as confusing.)
Hormone-Free: "Hormones are actually prohibited for use on all birds, as well as pigs," says Freund. So touting a turkey as hormone-free is like bragging that lettuce is vegetarian... uh, duh. It's true that there's a rising concern about the growth-rate of turkeys—and, yes, you should be worried about that—but hormones actually have nothing to do with it.
Natural/Naturally Raised/All-Natural: This is the equivalent of calling yourself a "model" just because you post selfies on Instagram—it can make you sound ~fancy~ but there's nothing to back it up. "Natural" turkey products must be "minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients," according to the USDA, but it doesn't go on to define "artificial." That means turkeys raised in conventional conditions (cramped, crowded spaces), subject to painful manipulations, and fed regular doses of antibiotics can still be labeled as "natural," says Freund.
Humanely Raised/Humanely Handled: This is another claim that's not clearly defined by the USDA or independently verified by any organization—meaning anyone can slap it on a label.
Free-Roaming/Free-Range: You might be picturing green pastures and happily frolicking turkeys, but that's not necessarily the case. This label means that outdoor access is required, but there are no set standards on what exactly that means. "You could have a tiny concrete porch that only allows a fraction of the flow any access to the outdoors," says Freund, yet it could still be labeled free-range.
Young: While being young might have a positive connotation (bright-eyed and bushy—er, feathery—tailed?) it doesn't actually matter when it comes to turkeys—and it's actually kind of a bad thing.
Conventional turkeys are slaughtered at 14 to 18 weeks old, "heritage" turkeys are slaughtered at around 28 weeks old, and wild turkeys live to be 3 to 5 years old. But despite being slaughtered younger than ever, the turkeys are also bigger than ever. In the 1930s, birds weighed about 13 pounds. Today, they weigh as much as 30 to 35 pounds, and are reaching that weight faster than ever, says Freund. (Speaking of messing with our food: here are five things you should know about GMOs.)
"I would not call it a selling point and it certainly has nothing to do with their welfare. The fact that they are reaching these weights at such young ages is a problem for them," she says.
How are they growing that fast anyway? Over time, farmers have used selectable breeding to pair the biggest, fastest-growing, most breast-heavy birds together over and over and over again. "Pulling out those genes over time creates a kind of Franken-turkey that's almost unrecognizable compared to heritage turkeys," says Freund. A "heritage" turkey, also known as a certified standard-bred turkey, includes breeds and varieties of domestic poultry that retain certain historic characteristics no longer present in the majority of poultry raised for food, according to the American Poultry Association's Flock Certification Program.
And that super-fast growth is having scary effects on the turkeys: "They are lame, have swollen joints, can't support their own weight, and they're so large and so disproportionate and breast-heavy that they can no longer naturally reproduce. They all have to be artificially inseminated," says Freund. Still think "young" is a good thing?
What to Look For
Unlike the above, these three certs are regulated and guarantee a certain quality of life for the animal. All three are verified by auditors and prohibit the worst animal farming practices, like overcrowding and mutilations like de-toeing or de-beaking.
Certified Humane: Preventative antibiotics are prohibited, and requirements include adequate space, enrichment (such as perches), minimum continuous dark hours, and bedding for indoor environments. Turkey farming standards extend to breeding animals, transport, and slaughter.
Global Animal Partnership: The organization has a six-step rating program for animals raised for meat (but not for eggs or milk). For turkeys, Step 2 represents a significant improvement over conventional standards and provides for an enriched indoor environment with minimum space requirments and dark hours. The top tier represents turkeys who spend their whole lives on the same farm and are outside all the time (except in severe weather conditions).
Animal Welfare Approved: Turkeys have continuous access to pasture or range, and preventative antibiotics are prohibited.
The Ingredient List: Make sure that your turkey is actually just turkey: "Preservatives, salt solutions, and fillers such as gluten are added to make the product last or sell more water weight (6 percent retained salt solutions)," says Heidi Diestel, turkey farmer at Diestel Family Turkey Ranch. Some commercially farmed turkeys can even have casein, carrageenan, phosphates, and MSG.
Why You Should Care
Yes, you're going to pay a little more for a higher-quality bird, and it might be a little harder to find. (ASPCA has this handy tool for finding farms and products that meet these criteria.) But since it's the magical age of the Internet, you can even buy a turkey online, often right from the farm.
And the thing is, it's worth it. Almost 95 percent of Americans believe that animals raised for food should not experience abuse or cruelty, according to a survey done by the ASPCA. But our buying habits don't reflect that. It's easy to be swayed by a lower price tag or misleading labels that don't reflect what's really going on behind the scenes. The fact is, this isn't just about the turkeys' health and welfare—it's about yours too.
"Animals are living in crowded conditions, sickening, filthy farms, which is contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria," says Freund. Because conventional farms are feeding preventative antibiotics to animals on a daily basis to keep them alive and healthy, it's creating resistant bacteria that travels all the way to our plates and into our bodies. Thus, "humans are consequently untreatable with normal antibiotics, which is a massive public health concern." (ICYMI, the Global Health Organization officially declared this a global threat. Just look at STDs, which are becoming antibiotic-resistant superbugs.)
Plus, it's having an impact on the environment as well: Dirty farms pollute drinking water and infect farm workers, says Freund.
"Every time we go to the supermarket, we can shop with our heart, and make a really big difference for animals, for our own health, and for the environment," she says.
This doesn't just apply on Turkey Day—or to turkeys. Those same welfare certifications apply to dairy, eggs, and other meat products. (FYI, there's a farming movement that's trying to get us back to the basics when it comes to food production. Meet: biodynamic farming.)
"Thanksgiving happens once a year, but we can make informed food choices that shift the way animals are raised for food every day of every year," says Freund.