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Free-Range or Cage Free? What Those Turkey Labels Mean

2007 November 21
by tomelko

Minnesota is the leading producer of turkey in the United States, with 250 turkey producers operating 600 turkey farms. Of the 266 million birds raised in the United States during 2006, 44.5 million were Minnesota-raised.

Free-range TurkeysWhen it comes to labeling those birds for market, however, consumers are subjected to a set of terms defined by United States Department of Agriculture guidelines. Sometimes confusing, sometimes misleading, labels impact how much you end up paying at the register. The following is a list of a few common labels and their definitions as determined by the USDA.

Before you pay more for that happy-go-lucky free-range bird that spent its days wandering over hill and dale eating nuts and berries off the ground, you should know that the USDA has a less romanticized idea of what qualifies as free-range.

For the USDA to designate a bird as free-range, the producer must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. When I visited an organic free-range turkey producer in Michigan earlier this year, access to the outside was provided by a caged in area attached at one end of the barn, perhaps 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Under the barn, ten-thousands toms stood breast to breast.

Cage-free means just that, and little more. Cage-free is not free-range as the birds aren’t given access to the outdoors.

When I asked a certified organic turkey farmer what was involved in raising organic birds, his response was “a lot of record keeping.” More importantly, organic turkeys can only consume organic feed. In the Midwest, feed is mostly comprised of ground corn and soy bean meal.

Turkeys with no artificial ingredients or added colors that are minimally processed may be labeled natural. Natural is not the same as organic.

The USDA does not allow hormones in poultry production, so the label “no hormones added” cannot legally be used unless it is followed by a statement reading “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Turkeys that are labeled “fresh” have never had their internal temperatures below 26 °F, but individual packages of raw poultry meat labeled “fresh” can be anywhere from 1°F below 26 °F within inspected establishments according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

In the end, the best way to know how your bird was raised is to know the person who raised it. To get to know a turkey farmer, search the Minnesota Department of Agriculture directory of Minnesota organic farmers, or the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.