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Turkey: what do the labels really mean and which is best?

Turkey: what do the labels really mean and which is best?

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In the UK, as many turkeys are eaten at Christmas as they are in the rest of the year put together. Often you’ll hear people say they don’t particularly like turkey meat, but this is probably because they haven’t tasted it at its best.

As with most meats, there is a huge variance in the way turkeys are grown and farmed, and this will make the difference between a fabulous or a forgettable meal. Chosen wisely and cooked correctly, turkey should be a real treat – one of the highlights of Christmas Day – and hopefully this piece will give you the information you need choose a quality bird that becomes just that.

From my experience of visiting many farms, I maintain that pigs and turkeys are my favourite animals to spend time with, due to their fun and mischievous personalities. While I recognise that all farm animals are sentient beings, some are more tuned in to their surroundings than others, and turkeys are highly tuned. They are smart animals and highly inquisitive, meaning they really need stimulation and careful management to stay mentally and physically healthy.


Turkey farming follows a very similar protocol to chicken farming, and in their early weeks the birds even look the same. Baby turkeys are called poults. They are hatched around a month after being laid, at which point they are kept warm by heat lamps. As they grow, they are moved into heated barns (or sometimes tents), and as their feathers grow, the barn temperature is slowly reduced to compensate.

The life the turkey leads will vary considerably depending on the brand or retailer the turkey is destined for.The cheapest, unluckiest turkeys will live their entire lives in dark crowded barns where they will never see natural daylight. At the other end of the spectrum, the lucky ones live in forests, get good exercise and have no end of socialising and stimulation. The difference in the life the turkey has lead will usually be reflected in the cost of the bird.

Paul Kelly breeds free-range turkeys

Cheap ‘commercial’ turkeys are grown in crowded dark barns for a reason. The low light stops them fighting due to boredom, the crowded conditions ensure minimum accommodation costs for the producer, and lack of exercise means the birds get more fat more quickly, again reducing the production cost.

Turkeys worldwide usually fall into the following farming categories:

  1. Standard indoor intensive This is the most basic, and can have problems with overcrowding and poor welfare.
  2. Higher-welfare indoor These are birds grown in barns where their welfare is better managed and they can express their natural behaviours. Look for trusted logos on products, such as ‘RSPCA Approved’ or ‘Certified Humane’.
  3. Free-range This is a regulated term in the European Union, which means birds must have outdoor access for at least half of their lives and a minimum allowance of four square metres of outside space.
  4. Organic Usually organic birds have the same lifestyle as a free-range bird, but are fed on 100% organic feed.

Jamie and his food team would not encourage people to buy turkey that is anything less than higher-welfare. An example of this would be RSPCA Approved in the UK or Australia, or Certified Humane in the USA. This means the barn is much more spacious, the air quality is well managed, and the birds have enrichment such as perches, allowing them to express their natural behaviours, which in turn reduces stress levels.

The turkey we really encourage people to buy, however, is free-range. Access to the outdoors is so important for turkeys because they are naturally very inquisitive and need to be stimulated. The quality of the free-range space can vary, though, and the best birds come from farms where there is lots of space and pasture or forest areas for them to explore. Free-range birds tend to grow more slowly, meaning they have more flavour, more fat in their muscles and a better, firmer texture. For this reason, free-range turkeys are less likely to dry out when you cook them.

Paul Kelly and one of his multi-award winning birds

In our opinion, the best turkey we’ve experienced come from producers like Kelly’s Turkeys. This is because they do three things that are extraordinary for turkey producers: Firstly, they only use a traditional heritage breed, distinguished by their black feathers, which are grown to full maturity. Secondly, their turkeys live in spacious tents in a forest where they can play on climbing frames, socialise in a natural environment and even explore the forest for grubs, berries and nettles – it’s the ultimate in free-range. Thirdly, once they have been humanely slaughtered they are dry aged, which allows the flavour and texture to develop in a way that never happens in more commercial systems.

As ever with animal products, we always recommend buying the best you can afford, and going for quality over quantity. Turkey is a product for which the welfare and method of farming has a direct impact on the quality and flavour of the meat. Once you’ve tried a top-end free-range bird, it’s unlikely you’d go back to anything else. And if you do only buy a turkey once a year for Christmas, then all the more reason to trade up to something more special!

What do "free range," "organic" and other chicken labels really mean?

By Francis Lam
Published January 20, 2011 7:30PM (EST)


When I started my messy breakup with cheap chicken, one of the immediate complications I found was, well, how do you define "cheap chicken"? (And, by extension, what is "good" or "sustainable" chicken?) By cheap chicken, I meant some kind of admittedly vague combination of chicken that is treated poorly while it's alive that's of questionable healthfulness, for both bird and man that's slaughtered cruelly that's produced in a way that damages the environment -- all of which are endemic to an industry that prioritizes low price above all. But with buzzwords like "sustainability" and even "organic" thrown about all willy-nilly, it's hard to know what we even mean by them. And it's especially hard since marketers realized that more and more people are willing to pay more money for products with those words on them.

So, when you're shopping for chicken, what do labels like "free range" or "pastured" really mean? Which chickens fall in line with everything you want, and which ones do you know you might make some kind of compromise for? I called two experts, Tom Schneller, who teaches meat identification and butchery at the Culinary Institute of America (and the man who taught me how to break down chicken), and Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for family farms and a fierce "organic" production watchdog.

The first thing Mr. Kastel said to me was kind of dispiriting: "Well, some of those labels just mean whatever the marketer happens to want them to mean." Some terms, like "organic," have legal definitions and actual enforcement. Others have definitions but not much enforcement infrastructure, and some, still, are utterly unmoored to the law. Here's a breakdown.

Many consumers have a vague sense of the incredibly crowded factory-like conditions of industrial chicken production, if not outright horror at them, and so "free range" became a hot term to sell to those people, designed to calm their fears about the crowdedness of "grow-out houses" (and subsequent disease density, and, if you're into this sort of thing, the unhappiness of the birds).

"Free range" does have an official definition: "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

The definition of "outside," though, is shaky does that mean there's a window chickens could theoretically squeeze through? Do the birds actually go through it? And outside could be a gorgeous rolling hill or it could be . a parking lot. Some producers include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their grow-out houses, with enough room for maybe 5 percent of the thousands of chickens in that house, and this may technically satisfy the term. (Although Mr. Kastel is seeing indications that the Obama administration may crack down on this.)

Chef Schneller noted, though, that not all operations are cynical. "The chickens might have more space, access to sunshine. They won't be foraging, though, so it's not a taste or nutrition issue. It might be more humane."

What some producers and farmers call "pastured" chicken is much more in line what with many people think they're getting with free range. This means that the birds are actually kept in coops at night, but are left to forage on grass, seeds, worms, etc., during the day. They might be fed grain as well, but they have access to a greater variety of food in their diet, and the result is much more richly flavored meat and eggs -- and a much more humane life for the birds. It's also much more expensive to raise chickens this way, because of the amount of space required and how that limits how many chickens you might be able to raise at a time. What's more, chickens can quickly turn a field into a moonscape with their pecking, so true pastured chickens will often be moved around a very large pasture as areas they've torn up need time to regrow.

Unfortunately, "pastured" isn't a legal term yet, so consumers have to do their own research on the brands that use this label.

This is one of the most classically misleading marketing terms in all of food. While it's not entirely true that anything can be called "natural," the term has nothing to do with how a chicken is raised. It simply means that nothing has been added to the bird after slaughter -- no flavoring, no brines, no coloring, etc. In an effort to curb some of the confusion around this label, the USDA requires marketers to say specifically what they mean when they use the term, such as "no artificial flavors" or some such.

Naturally enhanced

According to Chef Schneller, this is a term that gets into a gray area. The chicken might be pumped up with a broth made from the bones of that animal. But it could also mean that sugar is added, or "natural flavoring," whatever that might mean.

No hormones No antibiotics

Actually, by law, hormones are not allowed at all in chicken production, so labels saying "no hormones" are just pure marketing. Antibiotics are a little more tricky, since they are allowed in conventional chicken production (not organic), but theoretically so long before the birds are turned into food that there should be no antibiotic residue in the finished product.

This is a still-rare but increasingly popular technique. The vast majority of chicken is "water-processed," meaning the meat is chilled in cold pools. But with that much meat going through these pools, the water has to be chlorinated to kill bacteria, so you might not really want that. (Realistically, you'll get way more chlorine in you if you accidentally gulp down a little swimming pool water, but still.) Air chilling is a more time-consuming and more expensive process, but the chicken skips the chlorine dip. And many chefs report that air-chilled birds have better flavor and skin that gets crispier. Chef Schneller called it "a definite positive."

What about slaughter?

Conventional chickens are slaughtered in a way that involves electrified water, which is there theoretically for the chickens', er, "comfort." (The idea is that an upside-down dip into the pool will shock and stun them immediately, before they go through the mechanized kill line.) But many report that it doesn't always work that way you can imagine the horror stories. Animal welfare superhero Temple Grandin is working with several companies to convert to a process that lulls the chickens to sleep before slaughter, and if that's something you're interested in, the brands are Bell & Evans and Mary's Chickens.

But don't expect labeling on this any time soon. One of the biggest problems with clarity on how your chicken was slaughtered is the fact that, well, no one wants to be reminded that the chicken he's buying had to be killed. "Slaughtered without terrorizing or torturing the bird!" doesn’t quite have the marketing oomph that, say, "All natural" or "Clean as angel's breath" has.

Halal Kosher

These terms only refer to Muslim and Jewish religious criteria, respectively, mostly governing the slaughter of the birds. The labels have to be granted by religious authorities, not the government.

That said, some people insist on the higher quality and more humane treatment of birds with these labels. Both Chef Schneller and Mr. Kastel said that these claims can be true. Schneller noted that the simple fact of adding another layer of supervision, and especially, a more time-consuming slaughter that is done by hand (as opposed to the machines big producers use), may slow down the process enough that producers may be able to notice more that's going wrong. And Kastel noted that one of the principles of kosher meat production is being very careful that the animal isn't sick. So having someone specifically look for lesions and signs of disease in the birds is very helpful. Even though he lives near the site of the biggest kosher chicken scandal in history -- a packer who was charged with abusing animals, exploiting workers, and a host of other crimes -- he's confident that the label is still mostly worthy of trust.

Finally, Schneller also adds that kosher birds are typically washed with salt, so they in a sense come pre-seasoned, and can taste better that way.

Organic: The best label of them all?

Mr. Kastel is a firm believer that, at this point, "organic" is the best and most powerful label in chicken production (but not necessarily the signifier of the absolute best quality and most humane treatment for that, he suggests you get to know a chicken farmer).

It's a term with legal weight and the USDA enforces it. What it means for a chicken is that 100 percent of its feed (except maybe mineral supplements) must be certified organic, which means in itself that it has been grown in a field that has not seen chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms for at least three years.

In addition to the feed, certain husbandry techniques are prohibited in organic production. Since antibiotics are not allowed at all, chickens can't be contained in the literal wing-to-wing density that conventional producers use with that cramming, it would be impossible to keep disease at bay without drugs.

By law, organic chicken also has to be "free range," and while that term has its problems, the greater resources to inspect and certify organic producers means that this characteristic will at least be scrutinized to some degree in an organic bird.

"In general, you can trust the organic label, especially if you do the extra homework to look into the producer. It's the only label that has legal bite," Kastel says. That said, the really best way to know about the chicken you buy, he says, is to meet a farmer at a market and ask him or her to let you visit his or her chickens. "They are usually very enthusiastic about it. Good farmers are proud of what they do. They're going to welcome visitors. And if they don't, find a different farmer." 

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

Food Label Confusion: ‘Best By,’ ‘Sell By,’ ‘Use By’ Don’t Mean Much, Expert Says

What do “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” on food product labels really mean?

— -- We’ve all seen the “best by,” “use by,” “enjoy by” and “sell by” on food labels, but what do they really mean?

Dr. Michael Hansen says he knows.

“They don’t mean anything,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumer Reports, a magazine that tests and reviews consumer products, says consumers mistakenly believe the dates indicate the product’s expiration. They don’t, he said.

“What most people think is that the food is bad after that date and they shouldn't eat it - it could be a hazard. So they tend to throw it out,” he said.

But “GMA” Investigates is learning that, for the most part, the date shown on the container is not the final date at which the food may safely be consumed. Instead, the date shown is the last day the product is at its peak quality, as determined by the manufacturer, according to Hansen and a 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- an action group that works to protect health and the environment -- and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

The guidelines for label dating vary from state to state. Some states have no guidelines at all. The only product that carries a federally regulated use-by date is infant formula.

In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association acknowledged that “current practices do not adequately serve all consumers.”

In the statement, the association added that there is an effort among many partners to “improve current code dating practices, with the goal of creating a uniform global standard.”

As they are used right now, the dates don’t give a lot of useful information, Hansen said.

“There is complete confusion out there,” he said.

He and others believe the confusion leads to major waste and consumers losing money.

In his book, “American Wasteland,” author Jonathan Bloom said a family of four discards up to $2,300 worth of food each year.

How much of that waste is due to label confusion isn’t known, but experts say they are sure it’s part of the problem. In many cases, the food is still safe to eat after those dates.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, milk may be good for up to one week after the printed date. According to the USDA, eggs may be good within three to five weeks from your purchase date and certain canned good, such as soup and green beans – can be good unopened on the shelf for up to five years.

Scroll down for a list of other products and their shelf lives.

Asked how a consumer can know when food has gone bad, Hansen said people should “use common sense.

“The food will either smell or taste bad before it gets to the point that it's going to make you sick. Just use common sense,” he said.

Shelf Life of Common Foods

-- Canned ham (shelf stable), may be stored two to five years. After opening, it may be stored for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- Rice and dried pasta may be stored for up to two years. After cooking, they may be kept for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- High-acid canned goods including some juices, fruits and foods with vinegar-based sauces or dressings may be stored for 12 to 18 months. After opening, they may be kept in the refrigerator for five to seven days.

-- Unopened, cooked (processed) poultry may be kept three to four days in the refrigerator after purchase. After opening, it may be stored for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- Unopened bacon may be kept for up to two weeks after purchase, and for up to 7 days in the refrigerator after opening.

-- Unopened, processed, fully cooked ham may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. After opening, slices may be kept for up to three days and whole ham, seven days.

Turkey Talk: What Do Labels Like “Young,” “Fresh” And “Natural” Actually Mean?

Thanks for visiting As of October 2017, Consumerist is no longer producing new content, but feel free to browse through our archives. Here you can find 12 years worth of articles on everything from how to avoid dodgy scams to writing an effective complaint letter. Check out some of our greatest hits below, explore the categories listed on the left-hand side of the page, or head to for ratings, reviews, and consumer news.

Turkey Talk: What Do Labels Like “Young,” “Fresh” And “Natural” Actually Mean?

Whether you’re strolling down the supermarket aisle or perusing online grocers’ offerings ahead of Thanksgiving, you’re bound to see turkeys with a wide range of labels: “young,” “fresh,” “premium” and other distinctions that you may think you understand… but you probably don’t.

If you’re picky about what you eat, knowing what the labels mean can make a big difference — for example, just because a turkey is labeled “fresh,” that doesn’t mean it was slaughtered on the farm this morning and trucked down the street to the grocery store.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports have explained the various labels in the past you may come across, as well as other outlets like NPR’s The Salt blog, which we also referenced for guidance.

Once you’ve settled on a size for your holiday bird, the guide below will be helpful in making your final choice:

Fresh: Again, this bird was not hanging out on the farm with his bros this morning, it just means the turkey has never been below 26°F. This label could also be, “Never Frozen.”

Frozen: Speaks for itself, mostly. This means poultry was held at 0°F or below. “Previously frozen” may also be used to mean the same thing.

Free-range: Was your turkey running free on the plains? Maybe, or maybe not. This label means that an animal has spent a good portion of its life outdoors. But in order to gain that distinction, the U.S. Department of Agriculture only requires that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day.” Four hours a day? Perhaps. Five minutes? Could be.

Organic: Food has to be produced without most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and without antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or irradiation to earn this label, and animals had to have had access to the outdoors. A diet of organic feed free of animal byproducts is also required. Our siblings over at Consumer Reports recommend buying organic because of that absence of antibiotics.

No hormones administered: Beware this label — its claim means nothing, considering hormones are already prohibited in poultry production. That’s like a label saying, “This Turkey Is Not A Cow.”

No antibiotics administered: This means exactly what it says. There’s no verification system in place, but the USDA is accountable for proper use of the claim.

Natural: Consumer Reports takes issue with this label, which means that the turkey doesn’t contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. The label is not a verified claim, and says nothing about whether the animal ate a natural diet or how it was raised. Because there’s no government definition for the word, the claim is based on the processor’s word alone.

Cage-Free: No turkeys are raised in cages — more than 95% of all commercial turkeys live in open houses, according to the ASPCA. So again, this is basically a meaningless label.

Young: This bird is not the poultry equivalent of veal — it just means that it was killed at the same age as most other turkeys, which is between 16 and 18 weeks. There’s no USDA definition for “young” turkeys, but if a turkey is older than a year when it’s slaughtered, it must be labeled “yearling” or “mature.”

Premium: Is this the best meat around? Again, the label is pretty much worthless. Any company can choose to call their birds “premium.”

Heritage breed: You’ll find this label on traditional animal breeds, which are raised to support biodiversity. They’re relatively pricey and hard to come by, but you can order heritage breeds online.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.

Turkey: what do the labels really mean and which is best? - Recipes

This easy-to-prepare turkey is sure to be the star of your Thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and cooks everywhere in America are preparing for the big feast. The standout part of any Thanksgiving meal is the turkey, but it can be one of the trickiest parts to perfect. Oftentimes it is too dry, overcooked, and needs to be smothered in gravy and cranberry sauce to be edible. This Thanksgiving, however, rest assured, because here at The Daily Meal we have created a simple go-to roast turkey recipe that will leave you with a juicy and moist bird — hold the sauce.

The first step is to brine your fresh (not frozen) turkey. This involves soaking the turkey in a salty solution long enough for the salt to infiltrate the flesh, resulting in a juicer and tastier turkey. You can buy ready-made brining solutions or make your own. First, remove the innards (you can save these to make a broth for the stuffing: put into a saucepan, cover with water, add salt, and simmer for about an hour). Place the turkey (breast side down) into the brine solution, making sure the cavity gets filled. Place in a brining bag, seal tightly, and place in the refrigerator overnight.

Remember to handle raw turkey with caution. Be sure to always use separate cutting boards and utensils and avoid contact with other foods. Wash your hands with soap and warm water before touching anything else.

An hour before roasting, take the turkey out of the refrigerator and place in the roasting pan to dry and take the chill off the meat. This helps the turkey cook faster and promotes even browning and crisping.

Since stuffing your turkey adds cooking time, we opt to stuff with aromatics instead. Stuff the inside of the turkey with half an onion (peeled and quartered), lemon halves, a few smashed garlic cloves, and herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Rub the skin with melted butter or olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper (omit salt because it has been brined). Truss your turkey by tying the legs together with kitchen string and tucking the wing tips under.

Roast the turkey at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Then cover the breast area with aluminum foil, reduce heat to 350 degrees, add 2 cups of water or broth to the roasting pan, and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. The rule of thumb is about 13 minutes per pound. Baste frequently, to promote even browning, but be sure to keep the oven door shut in between basting so the heat doesn’t escape.

When the turkey has reached the desired temperature, remove from the oven, and tilt the bird so the inside liquids run out into the pan. Lift the whole turkey and transfer to a clean cutting board. Tent the turkey with foil and let it rest for 30 minutes before carving. Reserve the drippings for the gravy.

For the gravy, transfer the drippings to a saucepan and ladle off any excess fat. In a separate bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water (just enough so the cornstarch is absorbed), and stir into drippings. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Season the gravy with salt, pepper, and herbs to taste.

Follow these simple tips and this foolproof recipe for an easy and delicious roast turkey that will surely be the star of your Thanksgiving table.

Emily Jacobs is the Recipe editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyRecipes.

Know Your Chicken: What USDA Poultry Labels Actually Mean

Miki Kawasaki is a recovering art history major and ex-librarian who found her true calling amidst Washington, DC's burgeoning food scene. She lives in the Bronx and works as a brand copy manager for Fresh Direct and as a freelance food writer.

Allow me to set the scene: you head to the supermarket for chicken. It should be easy. No, it should be effortless. But instead, you find yourself lingering in front of the shelves wondering. Not whether to go with white or dark meat, skin-on or skinless—I've usually settled on a recipe and made that decision ahead of time. It's the choice between the differently labeled packages, cordoned off into their own sub-sections within the poultry case. There's the plainly-packaged store brand, which tells me in a non-descript font that it's "all natural" (begging the question of what an unnatural chicken breast or drumstick looks like). Then there's the big name behemoth, which has an illustration of a farm offset by a conspicuous badge, exclaiming that this chicken is cage-free and raised without hormones. The next shelf over and a few price rungs up is the specialty purveyor, which comes with an impressive list of credentials. Organic! Free-range! Raised without antibiotics! How's a girl to choose?

It's not an obvious choice, especially with the varying information and opinions out there. It seems that for every damning report we hear about the poultry industry, there's also a pointed rebuttal.

But there is one authority out there that sets the ground rules for discussion: the USDA. Its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees the language used to market and sell meat and other agricultural food products in the US. When it comes to poultry (which includes chicken, turkey, duck, goose, and other farmed birds), it sets legally enforced definitions for the terms you're likely to see on packaging and ensures that producers have adhered to them. The AMS is your final authority when it comes to setting apart the organic birds from the naturally raised the free-range from the cage-free.

Sam Jones-Ellard, a public affairs specialist at the AMS, explains that the agency creates these certifications "at the request of industry" with the goal of "working with industry partners to develop new labels and programs, to meet their needs and to meet consumer demand." In other words, by verifying that a product adheres to basic standards, consumers get a better idea of what they're purchasing and producers are able to better market their products.

But while the AMS's labels might be able to tell you a thing or two about your meat, some argue that many of these definitions are unhelpfully broad or vague. Deborah Krasner, author of Good Meat, thinks that "USDA labels are irrelevant, as they are made for factory farmed, industrial meat." Many of the larger producers can pay to have the USDA to certify their operations (and they do—giants like Perdue have even created whole ad campaigns around the USDA program that is unique to them and only them). But verification is a costly, intensive, and entirely voluntary process that can work to the detriment—or at least exclusion—of smaller-scale producers. So much so that many farmers who meet or even exceed the basic standards set by the AMS will opt out of having their products certified for those very reasons.

That's why you'll want to take the USDA's meat marketing system with a grain of salt. It's not comprehensive and it's more likely to carry weight in the aisles of your supermarket than, say, your local farmer's market. But for those poultry items that are checked by the AMS, here's a guide to what the agency certifies, and what those certifications actually mean.


Poultry grades cover the physical features of a bird, such as the plumpness of its meat, the distribution of fat underneath the skin, and even its bone structure. It also checks for attributes that are the result of post-slaughter handling, like tears in the skin and the presence of feathers. Basically, it's a seal that ensures that your meat looks good and hits all of the visual cues we look for in an ideal bird.

After inspection, the AMS grader gives a grade of A, B, or C, which can be applied to either the whole carcass or the individual, cut up parts. Grade A poultry is the highest ranked, with rounded, full meat, a consistent layer of fat, clean skin, and an absence of major physical deformities, tears, or discolorations. When graded as such, it will have a "USDA A Grade" shield on the packaging.

But poultry grades don't really establish much that differentiates products at the retail level. With beef, grades can say a lot about physical characteristics like fat content or marbling, and labels like "prime," "choice," and "select" actually refer to distinct tiers of meat. But with poultry, you're unlikely to see anything other than A grade meat sold as either the whole bird or in parts. Some producers may try to get away with using the prime/choice/select label on their packages. But under the AMS definition, these can be used to describe any poultry that is of A grade quality—B and C grade meat is generally reserved for ground or processed products. just don't count on it to be marketed as such.

Free Range

Breeds raised for meat tend to be fast growing creatures that can put on muscle quickly while still young and tender. Most chickens are 13 weeks old or younger at the time of slaughter ducks are generally no more than 16 weeks. Getting to full size in such a short period means they have to eat well during their brief lifespan. And yes, that means they poop a lot, too.

When kept indoors in limited space, as much conventionally raised chickens are, things can easily turn unsanitary and unhealthy. Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA, argues that indoor confinement makes birds more prone to sickness, namely because they're so young they haven't developed much of an immune system. And while conventional poultry farming often takes the view that outdoor ranging increases a flock's chance of exposure to pathogens, he suggests that this is in fact a misguided claim which suggests that "biodiversity is a threat they're saying the opposite of what is true."

Sure, the free range ideal conjures images of a pastoral alternative—images of roomy, outdoor living spaces and great green pastures. But the AMS definition of free-ranging or free-roaming? Not quite so idyllic. In fact, it only states that animals have "continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle." For poultry, this encompasses a whole range of scenarios, making the free range label vague at best. On the one end, you have free range birds that spend the majority of their time at pasture, pecking at the earth and moving across different grassy patches regularly. But a free range bird could also be one that spends most of its time inside a barn with hundreds or thousands of other compatriots—there may be a door to the outside, but there's no guarantee that your bird will ever venture out there, or that there's even much grass or soil to be found if it does.

The moral? Keep in mind that USDA-verified free range chicken is not required to spend any amount of time in fresh air, nor are there any strict regulations regarding the density of its living space. And be wary of terms that have no legal definition, such as "barn roaming" and "pastured"—these have no enforcement, and may mean whatever the producer or processor decides.


The cage-free label is something that is relevant only for egg laying hens, which are caged to make egg collection more efficient. Caging typically doesn't have any place in raising poultry for meat. and yet you'll still find the cage-free label on a whole lot of poultry products. It may sound more humane, but it's really just an advertisement of the practices all poultry producers are already employing anyway. Under the AMS definition, cage-free simply means that the birds were able to "freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area."

No Antibiotics Administered

Poultry is often raised in sizeable flocks, so when disease strikes, it can quickly get passed from bird to bird. In order to control the spread of illness-causing bacteria, and to encourage birds to grow faster, producers might preemptively introduce antibiotic medicines into a flock's feed, rather than trying to isolate the affected animals. Practices like these have garnered controversy for numerous reasons, including the concern that trace residues of these medicines may remain undetected in a bird's system by the time it reaches slaughter.

The AMS identifies poultry that has been raised without antibiotics as that which has "never received antibiotics from birth to harvest." The National Chicken Council emphasizes that "A no-antibiotics program is not some magical program for producing disease-free birds. Rather, it's a program which intends to raise birds without antibiotics and labels those which are successfully raised without antibiotics as 'raised without antibiotics.'" Farmers still have to contend with sick birds within their flocks, and must remove any that require antibiotic treatment from the program and label them accordingly.

No Hormones

Administering growth hormones and steroids to poultry has been illegal in the United States since 1959, after it was found that the hormonal treatments that were most widely used in birds at the time could affect humans in ways that, well, an excess of hormones tends to. Yet many poultry producers still advertise that their flocks never receive hormones (this must accompanied by the statement "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones," although you'll usually find it in very fine print). Simply put, this is another example of producers bragging about practices that are already mandated by law.

Naturally Raised

Also known as the "Never Ever 3," naturally raised poultry is given entirely vegetarian feed and receives neither antibiotics nor hormones. This means that their diet consists primarily of of grains and plant matter (corn, wheat, barley, oats, and sorghum are common), and is free of the sorts of slaughter byproducts that have been known to wind up in chicken feed as an unspecified "animal protein."

If these standards matter to you, take care! "Naturally raised" poultry is NOT the same as "natural" poutrly. In the USDA's view, any natural meat, poultry, or egg product is simply one that is minimally processed and doesn't have any artificial flavorings, colorings, or preservatives added after slaughter. Most meat products qualify as natural under this definition, so it's a pretty meaningless adjective.


Like other farm animals covered under the National Organic Program, organic poultry must be both naturally raised and free ranging. Their feed also has to be certified organic—that is, free of GMOs, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. To qualify, birds must be brought up within these standards beginning on the second day of their life right up until slaughter.

In the scope of practices that the AMS enforces for poultry, the organic label could be considered the most comprehensive, since it covers aspects of feed and living conditions. It doesn't necessarily ensure a better tasting bird, but it at least covers the bases in terms of making sure that there's been some scrutiny put into how it was fed, treated, and raised.

The Pecking Order

USDA certifications may say a thing or two about how a bird raised for meat lived its life. But it's debatable whether they really carry any weight when it comes to describing the ultimate flavor you're going to get on your plate. Whereas grades and other labels can tell you something about the tangible qualities of a piece of beef, there really isn't a similar system in place for poultry—the age and class of the bird might help provide some clues, but things really don't go much deeper than that.

For anyone with an interest in the ethics of raising poultry, however, the AMS's standards are a step toward increased clarity. That said, it's worth keeping in mind that there's a number of third party organizations that work with poultry producers, and sometimes also with the AMS, to establish a consensus for issues that matter to consumers. For example, the National Chicken Council's definition of humane treatment has been used as a standard for the "humanely raised" label in certain programs overseen by the agency. Keep an eye out for those sorts of labels but, again, do your research rather than take them at face value.

As Krasner suggests, choosing poultry should be a matter of knowing what the optimal conditions may be, and understanding how what's available to you stacks up in comparison. "I think if you know what the ideal is—free range, pastured, fed on organic grains—then you can intelligently scale down from that on occasions when something else is needed," she says.

Back in the fluorescent-lit supermarket aisle by the poultry case, that pastoral ideal feels like it belongs to some far-off world. But this remote distance between the farm and the shopping cart is precisely why the USDA and others offer a vocabulary to fill in the blanks. It's a vocab that's not always precise, for sure, but it is there to help navigate an industry that is big, complex, and crowded with competitors grabbing for your attention.

2 comments for &ldquo Ground Poultry: What’s in that turkey burger? &rdquo

Mechanically separated meat isn’t all that bad, it’s still meat, no bones, maybe more connective tissue – but with it being reduced to such small particles of connective tissue it doesn’t really present much in the way of increased toughness of the product. This meat reduces the amount of waste, and while it may not sound as appetizing, is really not that bad of a product, and it is not as widely used as people would have you believe.

Also, with regards to hotdogs and the like – there isn’t every any eyeballs or weird stuff like that ground up into the meat… that’s not allowed – urban legend only these days – though before “The Jungle”- Sinclair (something that could be on the list of your books to read) things were different. Let me know if you have any questions.

You can also not have any mechanically separated beef due to concerns over BSE.

any questions? ask! Don’t just take my word for it either!

Thank you for the informative comment, Corey. Great information as always!

In this case, there is nothing harmful about the product ingredients (conventional vs. organic chicken aside), but, like you suggested, it’s about the appeal of the food. The idea of MSP or ground poultry doesn’t sound appetizing to me so I will avoid it. But other people may not care so much.

What Do Food Labels Really Mean?

Let's face it, sometimes food labels can be very confusing. Terms like fresh, humanly raised and hormone-free can be misleading. The List's Bradley Hasemeyer decodes what these really mean on the Breakdown.

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Share All sharing options for: What Do Those 'Healthy' Food Labels Really Mean?

In the last few weeks, multiple class-action lawsuits have been filed against KIND snack bars alleging they're not quite as healthy — the nirvana of healthful tastiness — as the company claims. The bars themselves are covered in statements marking them as gluten- and GMO-free as well as " all natural ." Its slogan — "ingredients you can see and pronounce" — implies a healthfulness that many consumers feel processed foods lack. Yet the Nutrition Facts label, tucked away on the back of the package, tells a different story: One almond-and-coconut bar contains 18 percent of the recommended daily fat intake and 25 percent of saturated fat, in addition to three teaspoons of sugar. All this in a snack bar that contains less than nine percent of the recommended daily calories.

Between 2011 and 2014, more than 150 class-action lawsuits were filed because of food-labeling practices.

One lawsuit recently filed in California alleges that Kind bars are "misbranded in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act" since they are sourced with GMO crops, use highly processed foods, and are not actually legally "healthy" according to FDA guidelines. On March 17, the FDA sent a warning letter to Kind, telling the company its products were misbranded: The "labels bear nutrient content claims, but the products do not meet the requirements to make such claims."

Yet Kind is hardly the first to print misleading claims on its packages. In 2009, Kellogg was forced to pull a health claim stating that its Frosted Mini-Wheats were "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20 percent." Just last month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics got into PR hot water after Kraft put an AND-sponsored "Kids Eat Right" logo on its American "cheese product." While the Academy maintains that it was never meant to be an endorsement, consumers often think otherwise. Between 2011 and 2014, more than 150 class-action lawsuits were filed because of food labeling practices.

Quaker Oats labels in 2001 and 2015. Photos: Darren McCollester/Getty Geri Lavrov/Getty

Why is it so difficult to choose a healthy food?

Health-conscious shoppers are often attracted to bright labels announcing that a product is "healthy" or a "good source of calcium." (A 2010 study of package labels found that nutritional marketing is used most often on "products high in saturated fat, sodium, and/or sugar" as well as foods marketed toward children.) Often referred to as nutrition marketing, the practice is eerily effective. Though there's some dissent over whether the practice causes harm to consumers, a 2005 report by the Nutrition Foundation found that health claims "increase consumers' expectations about the healthiness of a product and produce more positive attitudes toward its nutritional value." Unfortunately, this so-called " health halo " resulting from beneficial nutritional claims remains even when paired with warning statements (such as a product being high in saturated fats). Once we think a product is healthy, we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary.

Depending on its size, a supermarket carries between 15,000 and 60,000 items on its shelves, and the average time spent walking up and down the aisles of the local supermarket, according to the Time Use Institute , is only 41 minutes. The way our brains can process 60,000 pieces of information in less than an hour is by making almost split-second decisions about what to put in our carts and what to leave behind. One 2011 study found that consumers make choices in as little as one-third of a second. That means that it takes more time to walk through the grocery store than for you to decide what you actually want to eat.

What does that label really mean?

While some label definitions are regulated by the FDA, some are not — and often, it's hard to tell the difference. Here are the claims that go unregulated by the FDA:

"Lightly sweetened": Though terms like "sugar-free" are regulated by the FDA, this term is up to the manufacturer's discretion.

"Natural": While it may imply a product that is made with whole ingredients and minimal processing, the term has no legal definition. However, manufacturers have been sued by consumer groups or made to remove the term from products made with artificial ingredients.

"Made with real. ": This phrase is often used to describe products made with "real fruit" and while the product must have some fruit somewhere to not be considered misbranded, there are no limits as to how much fruit it must be "made with."

"Multigrain": People often see this term as synonymous with "whole grain" but it simply means that there is a mixture of grains used — none of which have to be whole.

Though many of us grew up with Nutrition Facts labels and even claims like "soluble fiber in oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol," they're both fairly new additions to the grocery aisle. It wasn’t until the 1967 Fair Package Labeling Act that the net quantity of packaged foods had to be clearly and accurately stated. (Finally, customers could look at two identical cereal boxes and see that one had 18 ounces of food inside and the other only 15.) But it took another 23 years before the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act required foods to have Nutrition Facts labels. The act also standardized serving sizes and terms like "low-fat." Since the NLEA also allowed dietary supplement manufacturers to use structure-function (referring to a structure or function of the human body like bones, as opposed to what affects the bones, like "osteoporosis"), health claims, food manufacturers argued that they, too, should be able to do the same.

Unlike the makers of dietary supplements, food manufacturers who use health claims don't have to print the standard disclaimer that claims "[have] been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." That said, if a food is high in sodium but wants to market itself as "a good source of fiber," it needs to have a disclosure statement (something like "See nutrition information for saturated fat content") on the front of the box, too.

Unfortunately, these warnings do little to dissuade consumers. And as long as foods don’t cross the line into a "disease statement" (implying that the fiber in oatmeal can treat — rather than "help reduce" — high cholesterol, for example), manufacturers can use these claims without alerting the FDA or gaining approval ahead of time.

That said, some products that have taken this freedom too far. In 2009, Kellogg discontinued an immunity claim printed on boxes of Rice Krispies cereal. Used even on Cocoa Krispies, the box not only claimed that the cereal contained "25 percent of the daily value of antioxidants and nutrients" but that it also helped "support your child’s immunity." Since structure-function claims can only be in reference to a structure or function of the human body, Kellogg likely could have gotten away with replacing "immunity" with "immune system." As written, it sounded too much like the cereal was meant to treat a disease.

Quaker Oats labels in 2001 and 2015. Photos: Darren McCollester/Getty Geri Lavrov/Getty

What kind of claims are there?

In addition to structure-function claims, companies use information about ingredients ("made with real fruit"), FDA regulated terms like "good source of," and third-party labels like the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart Check label, to draw health-conscious consumers into buying their product. These third-party labels run the gauntlet from transparency to secrecy. One of the oldest, the Heart-Check label, was established in January 1995. According to Dr. Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the AHA, "72 million U.S. adults — or 30 percent of the population — say they always or usually use the Heart-Check label." Though the Heart-Check label has gotten flack in the past for endorsing products high in sugar, the American Heart Association recently revised its guidelines to fit with the current dietary advice.

Then there are proprietary, algorithm-based health symbols. Often used by grocery chains, the reasons why some products can have a "Guiding Star" symbol (used by the Hannaford grocery chain) or the NuVal system, which gives products a score between 1-100, are shrouded in secrecy.

Proprietary, algorithm-based health labels, found on many grocery-store labels, are often shrouded in secrecy.

Another popular symbol, the Whole Grain Stamp, is sponsored by the Whole Grains Council. Kelly Toups, its program manager, says that the logo was introduced "a week after the 2005 Dietary Guidelines were released," piggybacking on the government recommendation for consumers to get at least half of their grain consumption from whole grains. Today the stamp is on more than 10,000 different products in 44 countries. Some consumer groups complain that products using whole and non-whole grain can still use the logo. While there is a 100% Whole Grain Stamp (which requires products contain 16 grams of whole grains per serving), the other stamp only requires eight grams per serving of whole grains, regardless of other ingredients.

Is it enough to follow the letter of the law?

Even with wording that follows FDA guidelines, companies may be doing less to educate consumers and more to lead them astray. Congress became invested enough to create a committee made from members of the Center for Disease Control, Institute of Medicine, and FDA, and a 2010 report published by that committee highlighted a number of issues with FOP labeling.

What does that label really mean?

These labels must meet specific FDA regulations in order to appear on a food product:

"High in" or "Excellent source of": Must have 20 percent or more of the recommended daily value of the given nutrient per serving.

"Good source of" or "Contains": Must have 10-to-19 percent of the recommended daily value of the given nutrient per serving.

"Fortified" or "Enriched": Can only apply to vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and potassium. Must contain 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value than a comparable food.

"Antioxidant": To qualify as an antioxidant, a food must have a recommended daily intake, scientific evidence of antioxidant properties, and enough of the nutrient per serving to qualify as a "good source of" the antioxidant.

"Healthy": These foods must meet a long list of requirements including being low in fat, sodium, cholesterol, and contain at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value for important nutrients like vitamin C or calcium.

"No added sugars": While a product may contain sugar, no sweeteners were added during processing.

"Light": Food must be low-calorie, low-fat, and have sodium content reduced by 50 percent compared to similar products.

"Low-fat": Food must have three grams or less of fat per serving.

"Low-calorie": Food must have 40 calories or less per serving.

Some of the problems: The criteria for categories like "low-fat" and "low-calorie) exclude healthy foods like peanut butter. Fortified foods (those with added nutrients) may have more nutrients but be less healthy overall. And though fortification of foods like milk (adding vitamin D) or salt (adding iodine) can reduce diet-related illnesses, some foods take the practice too far. Breakfast cereals in particular are egregious fortifiers. In 2014, the Environmental Working Group published a report listing potential health effects of consuming too much vitamin A, niacin, and zinc through a diet heavy in fortified foods.

Even the FDA has recognized that "random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply." Luckily, there is a clause in the fortification rules — sometimes referred to as the "jelly bean rule" — that prohibits food manufacturers from adding nutrients to junk foods, fresh whole foods, candy, and carbonated beverages.

Dr. Ellen Wartella, chair of the 2010 committee that studied FOP labels, doesn’t believe things have changed in the marketplace since the study took place five years ago. "We were told work on FOP would come after the revision of the Nutrition Facts panel and my understanding is that that’s still going on," she says. Wartella mentions that when the Nutrition Facts panel first appeared on food labels in the 1990s, a public education campaign went along with it. "When that was going on, there was a relatively high use of the Nutrition Facts panel," she says. Now people have tossed it aside in favor of the easy-to-read information placed on the front of the box. Wartella adds, "There’s so much information on the front of the pack that there’s sometimes difficulty discerning the most important information."

Reflecting on the committee recommendations, Wartella says, "We wanted to harmonize or coordinate the front-of-pack info with the Nutrition Facts panel." Hopefully the edit would not only present clearer information to consumers, but also increase the likelihood that they’d turn the package around.

Unless consumers are educated enough to know the nuances of "good source of" and "healthy," the various rating systems, and fortification versus naturally occurring nutrients, the melee of the grocery aisle is likely to continue. While occasional Kind bars may get called out for abusing the privilege, it doesn’t mean those following the rules are less confusing to consumers.

Agreeing on a phrase

Looking to stem the tide of still-edible food that ends of in landfills, the FDA is backing a voluntary industry effort to standardize the "best if used by" wording on packaged food, saying it should curb consumer confusion thought to contribute to about 20% of food wasted in U.S. homes.

The agency cited consumer research that found "best if used by" most effectively communicates the message the agency wants to relay -- that while the product's quality is optimal up to the specified date, the item is still safe to eat after that time so long as it's properly stored.

"We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this 'Best if Used By' terminology," Yiannas said. "This change is already being adopted by many food producers."

Trending News

What Do ‘All Natural’ And ‘Organic’ Really Mean? Expert Tips On Decoding Food Labels

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – While you may think you’re making some healthy choices at the supermarket by picking products that say “all natural” or “lightly sweetened,” experts warn that such claims can be misleading.

“When it comes to losing weight is gluten free the way to go?” one shopper asked.

“Hey should I get organic? Natural?” asked another.

“What does ‘all natural’ really mean anyway?” asked a third.

One thing is for sure: Consumers seem confused when it comes to food labels.

“Marketers are very, very clever,” said dietitian Nicolette Pace. “What they do is catch trends… and they know what sells.”

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, 80 percent of grocery shoppers say information on packaging seems conflicting.

“It’s really the front of the box versus the back of the box,” Pace said.

The front of the box, says Pace, is all marketing. She says the back of the box is “where the real nutrition information is.”

One of the biggest false claims today, she says, is the term “all natural.”

“And then on the back you’ll have BHT and all kinds of preservatives,” Pace said.

BHT is a controversial food additive. Manufacturers can do this because labels are unregulated.

“Organic, now that’s a big one. It’s on everything,” Pace said.

Unless used by a trustworthy company, Pace says the word “organic” may just be a ploy. As are the phrases “grass fed,” “free range,” “lightly sweetened” and “made with real fruit.”

“‘Made with real fruit’ means, if you’re lucky, maybe a tablespoon of real fruit,” Pace said. “It’s pretty much jam.”

“Uncured” bacon, Pace says, is actually cured, but with something other than sodium nitrate.

“What they use is celery juice,” Pace said.

“Gluten free” is written on just about everything now – even products that never contained wheat.

“If you do not have any need for gluten free, stay away,” Pace said. “It has the same amount of carbohydrates.”

So here’s how to decipher labels:

  • If natural is important to you, look for a product with five or less ingredients.
  • “USDA Organic” is a term that is regulated by the government and therefore trustworthy

Pace says skip “reduced” or “low fat” items altogether.

“They will add carbohydrates. When you take out something, you have to put something back, you’re not going to put back air,” Pace said.

Experts also say look at the ingredients on the label. They have to be listed in descending order of weight, so you want to look for healthy choices at the top of the list.



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  2. Kazrak

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  3. Sawyer

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