In which we decode turkey labels, tell you how to buy from a responsible, humane turkey farmer and more.
Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a household of bickering family members is trouble enough. We can’t help you there, but we can help with the pre-Thanksgiving stress: heed these tips to obtain the perfect bird, without all the hassle.
Remember, you’ll need a turkey that weighs at least one pound per person to be fed, more if you want leftovers. And if buying frozen, don’t forget to start defrosting it in the refrigerator long before Thanksgiving — one day per four pounds of meat is a good rule of thumb.
Start Looking Early
If you want a truly artisanal, pastured turkey from a farmer that grows their own turkey feed and pets and cuddles each bird every day, you need to start really early — like January. This is typically when farmers of this sort, who might only raise 10 or 20 turkeys each year, start taking orders for Thanksgiving. That’s because they’ll start raising baby turkeys in early spring and they like to have a guaranteed buyer for each mature bird come November.
Missed the boat on pre-hatch ordering? You still have no time to waste. Small-flock farmers sometimes raise extra birds, but the chances that all have been spoken for by the third week of November are high. Even if you’re going to buy from a store or aggregator that specializes in sourcing locally (they likely deal with mid-size farmers), plan on placing your order by Halloween at the latest, as they’re apt to sell out — the demand for high-quality turkey far exceeds supply.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find a wholesome turkey farmer near you: www.localharvest.org provides a nationwide database.
Read Those Labels Carefully
If you’re getting your turkey straight from a farmer who allows you to come and see how, and on what foods, the birds are raised, they may be of such a small scale that they haven’t bothered with a bunch of fancy certifications, and may not have labels per se. But in this case, you can see for yourself whether the bird lives crammed in a barn ankle deep in excrement or in a verdant pasture with acorns and caterpillars to graze on.
In cases where labels are provided, here’s what to look out for:
Antibiotic-free (and similar wording): This means exactly what it says, though it’s worth noting that the USDA does not require on-farm inspections to verify this claim.
Certified Organic: This means the animal was fed certified organic, non-GMO feed; was not administered antibiotics or growth hormones; and had some form of outdoor access. Though it doesn’t guarantee it was free to roam each day outdoors.
Free-Range: Legally-speaking, this means only that the animals have access to the outdoors, but says nothing about the quality or size of the outdoor space, or how much of their life the animal spent there.
Grass-Fed: This label pertains to ruminants, not poultry. Turkeys do consume plant matter when given access, but the bulk of their natural diet comes from insect, nuts and seeds.
Humane labels: Numerous labels and certifications allude to how the turkey was treated and what it’s living space was like, but it’s important to be aware that some of these have standards that are only marginally better than typical factory farming practices (note that “humanely raised” is a meaningless, unregulated term). Animal Welfare Approved and Global Animal Partnership (rated 4 or higher) are two certifications with fairly rigorous standards and enforcement protocols, though only the former audits processing facilities to ensure compliance with humane slaughter practices.
No Growth Hormones: This is gibberish when it comes to turkeys, as federal law prohibits the use of growth hormones in all poultry.
Natural: This means that no artificial ingredients have been added to the meat, but says nothing about how the animal was raised, including whether antibiotics were used.
Pasture-Raised (or pastured): This means the animal was free to roam each day outdoors, but the term is not regulated by the USDA, so it is essentially meaningless unless you can go to the farm and see for yourself (except in conjunction with the Certified Humane label — this organization enforces standards for pastured poultry).
Heritage vs. Industrial
Virtually all store-bought turkeys are a single breed: the Broad-Breasted White, a fast-growing bird with an enormous breast favored by factory farmers. Broad-Breasted Whites have little else to recommend them and are so breast-heavy that they can barely walk, let alone fly. It seems this bird’s breeders had little in mind other than profits, as Broad-Breasted Whites cannot reproduce without human intervention and are notoriously prone to health problems — part of why they are routinely pumped full of antibiotics.
Heritage breed turkeys comprise virtually every other turkey the planet has known throughout history. These breeds are generally at least 50 years old, if not several hundred years old. They come in a dazzling array of plumage colors and some have specialized traits that allow them to adapt to different climatic regions. Perhaps most importantly, they are fully functioning animals, able to walk, fly and mate. They are also good foragers — Broad Breasted Whites have trouble finding enough food when turned out on pasture.
Heritage turkeys were nearly extinct 20 years ago, but increased consumer demand has fueled a renaissance. Today the Livestock Conservancy lists a dozen widely available heritage breeds, including Narragansetts, Slates, Royal Palms and Bourbon Reds.
But be forewarned: heritage turkeys typically pack a much small percentage of white meat than most modern eaters are used to.