Claims about "all-natural" turkeys are all over the map
It's a chilly November morning at Mountain's Edge Farm in Hinesburg, but inside the barn hundreds of turkeys are warming themselves in the sunlight that pours through the dusty, translucent windows. The gobblers' bulbous bodies look clean and white in the diffuse light. Their feathery down coats the walls and rafters like the aftermath of some overnight pillow fight.
Sean and Jennifer Lang, who own Mountain's Edge Farm, are raising about 250 white-breasted turkeys for the holidays. The number seems surprising, considering how much space the birds have for scratching at sawdust, chasing around or just letting out the occasional chorus of gobbles. The hand-painted sign on the road indicates that these birds aren't given any growth hormones or antibiotics, but, technically speaking, they're neither free-range nor organically grown. As Jennifer Lang points out, however, a consumer would be hard-pressed to find a farm-fresh turkey that's been raised more naturally than hers.
"We're probably more picky than the large, commercial farms," says Lang, whose birds are fed a diet of all-natural grain bought from a friend in Canada. And unlike large, factory farms, which clip off their birds' beaks and force-feed them grain to fatten them for slaughter, the Langs allow their turkeys to feed naturally. To this farming family, what matters most isn't fancy labels or slick packaging, but healthy, happy birds.
In a Butterball world, Vermonters have a leg up on most of the country when it comes to finding farm-fresh turkeys for the holidays. While most Americans will flock to the supermarket for rock-hard, shrink-wrapped cannonballs of frozen flesh, we have lots of options for buying fresh, locally raised gobblers. This year, Vermont turkey growers like the Langs will sell tens of thousands of roasters, most of which are raised without preservatives, hormones or antibiotics.
Unlike other birds raised in the state, the Langs' don't come bearing the Agency of Agriculture's "Vermont Seal of Quality." But that says more about the red tape surrounding the packaging than what's actually inside. The "Vermont Seal of Quality" only indicates where the turkey was raised. It tells the consumer nothing about what the animal was fed or how it lived or died. And it's one of dozens of packaging catchphrases -- including "fresh," "free-range," "no hormones" and "antibiotic-free" -- that may make a turkey seem wholesome and happy, but are actually more confusing than clarifying.
To help shoppers make heads or tails out of what they're buying, here's a brief primer on the poultry-packaging pecking order, drawn from the Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, warns that, whether you're buying turkey, chicken, beef or eggs, many labels don't necessarily tell you what you think they do. Some are misleading. Others are downright deceptive.
For example, the terms "free-range" and "free-roaming" suggest that a chicken or turkey spent a major portion of its life outdoors, grazing, foraging and running around. In truth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has no meaningful definition for those terms, requiring only that the birds have access to the outdoors for "an undetermined period each day." On large, industrial-style poultry operations, that can mean that a single small door for tens of thousands of birds is open for just five minutes each day. Even if the birds are packed shoulder to shoulder and never leave the barn during their entire lives, they can still be packaged under the label "free-range." What's more, it's up to the producer or manufacturer to decide whether or not to make the "free-range" claim.
The same can be said for "natural" turkeys. Again, Consumers Union points out that there's no standard USDA definition for the term, except that meat and poultry bearing this designation cannot contain artificial flavorings, ingredients, colors or chemical preservatives, and must be only "minimally processed" in a way that doesn't significantly alter the raw product. However, like "free-range" poultry, a "natural" claim isn't verified by any independent agency or organization. And "natural" doesn't tell the consumer anything about how the animal was raised or slaughtered, or whether it was given feed additives, hormones or antibiotics.
The term "fresh" isn't much more revealing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the term when it's used to describe fruit and vegetables, defines "fresh" as "a food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives." But the USDA claim of "fresh" for meat and poultry is more lenient. A consumer might assume that a "fresh," store-bought turkey has never been frozen, preserved or processed. Under the USDA designation, a "fresh" turkey can be stored at a temperature as low as 24 degrees. And, as Consumers Union notes, "there is wide variability in how much poultry can be cooled in order to be labeled 'fresh.'"
Two other phrases that sound meaningful but aren't: "raised without antibiotics" and "no hormones administered." Once again, there's no federal definition for either designation, and no independent agency backing up the claims. Moreover, the USDA prohibits the use of hormones in the raising of all poultry in the United States, making any claim about the absence of hormones in a turkey gratuitous.
Not all labels are meaningless, though. "USDA Organic" and "Vermont Organic Certified" can be found on a wide range of food products -- maple syrup, fruits, vegetables, meats and processed foods. Products bearing these labels must conform to a set of rigorous, USDA-approved standards that were drafted over the course of a decade with considerable input from the organic farming community and the general public. "Organic" turkeys and other livestock must eat 100 percent organic feed that doesn't contain animal byproducts or growth hormones. All organic animals must also have access to the outdoors, as defined by USDA standards.
Two other labels that are beginning to show up on grocery store shelves in Vermont read, "free farmed" and "certified humane raised and handled." Although the two labels have slightly different standards and certifying organizations, both essentially assure the consumer that animals used for dairy, lamb, poultry or beef products are raised in a healthy manner without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics, and are slaughtered humanely. These certifications also require that animals raised for food have sufficient space and shelter, the company of other animals of the same species, and access to good nutrition and fresh water.
The website for the Humane Society of the United States lists more than 30 stores around Vermont that now carry products bearing the label "certified humane raised and handled." But good luck landing one of these happy birds on your table; an informal survey of area supermarkets and meat sellers found none that currently sell turkeys under that label or "free farmed."
One advantage of living in Vermont is, if you can't find the type of turkey you want at your local food store, you can go directly to the farm. There, you can see for yourself how your bird was raised, and that, farmers say, tells more about the freshness and wholesomeness of a turkey than any label ever will.
Vermonters interested in a
local bird that was never frozen have several options. Misty Knoll turkeys, raised in New Haven, have good access to a large pasture. They are kept in a large, airy barn and are never caged. Though Misty Knoll turkeys are not certified organic, the birds are given vegetarian feed and farmed using sustainable practices. They're also very popular -- so much so that Misty Knoll turkeys need to be special-ordered at markets around the state, such as the Shelburne Supermarket and City Market in Burlington. Hunger Mountain Co-op will be offering the birds on a first-come, first-served basis. The Montpelier store's big shipments arrive November 18 and 20.
Another popular local roaster comes from Stonewood Farm in Orwell. Peter Stone, whose father owns the farm, says that this holiday season they'll be selling about 20,000 turkeys, nearly all of them fresh and never frozen. Although Stonewood turkeys aren't certified organic, Stone says that their birds are fed entirely vegetarian feed with no animal byproducts, and are never administered growth hormones or antibiotics. Stonewood turkeys also have access to the outdoors during the day, but are housed in a barn at night. These gobblers can be special-ordered at stores around the state, including Bessery's Quality Meats and Hannaford in Burlington, Dick Mazza's General Store in Colchester and the Middlebury Food Co-op.
Those seeking a strictly organic bird might try the Shelburne Supermarket. But be prepared to pay as much as $5 a pound. That higher cost is what made Hunger Mountain Co-op decide not to carry organic turkeys this year.
Consumers who don't get their special orders in on time can still check out the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's list of farm-fresh turkey growers at http://www.vermontagriculture.com/turkeys.htm. Many of the farms on this site will be selling turkeys directly to consumers until the day before Thanksgiving.
Finally, for those whose turkey quest is a matter of religion, Price Chopper and Hannaford in Burlington and Shelburne Supermarket offer kosher birds. Halal turkeys are sold at Global Market in Burlington. And for the non-meat eater, of course, there's always "tofurkey," available at a number of locations around Vermont.