Don't Fence Me In
Free-range or not, choose your turkey with a clear conscience this holiday

By Jordana Gerson

For most Americans, memories of Thanksgiving focus on images of succulent, brown, juicy birds and a week of turkey sandwiches and cranberry sauce leftovers. While these memories are typically guilt-free, the truth is that the bulk of our Thanksgiving birds come from industrial farms where producers are more concerned with the quantity of turkeys than the quality of the birds or the conditions under which they are raised.

Tottering under the weight of immense breasts and tightly packed into huge warehouses, industrially raised turkeys are kept confined, often as many as 10,000 to a single room, and fed additives and antibiotics, according to Ian Duncan, a professor of ethology at the University of Guelph in Ontario. This is a far cry from what nature intended. "To some extent," says Duncan, "we've created a monster."

Animal fat is often added to feed for bulking up the birds, and antibiotics may be mixed into rations to stave off disease. Cramped conditions often lead to turkeys infected with salmonella, campylobacter and other bacteria that may persist even when treated by antibiotics.

The Free-Range Choice
The good news is that choices for naturally raised turkeys are on the rise, making it an easier task to purchase your Thanksgiving centerpiece with a clear conscience. Free-range turkeys, which are allowed access to the outdoors and live a significant portion of their lives at pasture, are likely to please both the conscience and palate of a traditionalist and can be picked up at natural products stores or ordered from a free-range farm. But don't be fooled by just any free-range label. A high-quality bird that's been raised naturally, without the use of antibiotics or additives, may not be what you're getting even when you buy a turkey that carries a reassuring free-range label.

Though free-range turkeys are raised in conditions closer to their natural habitats and are less likely to carry disease, the classification guidelines are loose. According to the USDA's labeling department, to put the terms "free range" or "free roaming" on a turkey label, farmers have to "...demonstrate that [the turkey] has been allowed access to the outside."

Caryn Long, spokesperson for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA, says, "To have the label 'free range,' farmers have to demonstrate to our agency that turkeys have spent a significant portion of their lives outside, or have had access to the outside for a significant portion of their lives. Farmers [also] have to demonstrate that a significant portion of the animal population has had access to the outside and that there's a significant amount of space for the animals once they are outside."

Free range doesn't mean organic, so even when accurately applied, the free-range label doesn't ensure that turkeys have been raised on pesticide-free feed or without antibiotics or additives. Consumers must check labels for information about such concerns or contact the producers directly to determine the conditions under which the birds were raised.

Currently, the USDA is permitting certain meat and poultry products—including turkey—to be labeled certified organic by the name of the certifying entity. But again, labeling can be confusing since some producers freely use the terms "organic" or "natural" without certification to back it up. Consumers must carefully check the label for "certified organic" turkeys to ensure the birds have been raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides in their feed.

Mary Pitman, of Mary's Free-Range Turkeys in Fresno, Calif., echoes the importance of prudent label reading. "Consumers can really be fooled," she says. "Some farms can qualify for free range, but they raise [turkeys] in the same conditions as industrial farms. Here we have four times more space than industrial farms. We provide 8 to 12 feet per turkey. Some people think that just because turkeys go in and out of pens they're free range. If they're truly [naturally raised], their feed doesn't have any drugs or hormones or antibiotics in it and they have the freedom to roam."

Ideal free-range conditions, where turkeys live social lives in open spaces and have never been fed antibiotics, drugs or hormones, might not necessarily reflect the life of the bird carrying the free-range label. Paul Stone, co-owner of Stonewood Farm in Orwell, Vt., also suggests that customers double-check the farming methods where their turkeys are produced. "[Our turkeys] are allowed to go out to pasture whenever they want to," he says. "We don't feed them any antibiotics or growth hormones and we don't add any fat to our feed. Commercial farms all add some amount of fat [to theirs] and you end up with a different flavor of meat."

Sleuthing The Turkey's History
If you have any questions about the production or treatment of a certain brand of turkey, call the company. Many turkey farms have toll-free information lines, and the best of these can vouch for the fact that their turkeys have been raised with ample space—an absolute minimum of 4 square feet per turkey when they are inside—in natural, primarily outdoor settings, and have not been fed or injected with preservatives or additives.

Getting to know your bird's biography may seem like just another chore on a long list of Thanksgiving preparations, but knowing that you're feeding your family safely is an important payoff. Best of all, buying a natural bird has tasty benefits: It's as good to your taste buds as it is for your body. And that's something we can all be thankful for.

Jordana Gerson writes about travel, the outdoors and holistic living.