All natural? How Thanksgiving shoppers can decipher turkey labels

Shopping for a Thanksgiving turkey has become a moral and emotional brain puzzle.
Consumers are left deciphering the disparate claims stamped on packages at the grocery store, wondering which version of “free” meat is the best option: cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free. And what about natural? Is that different from organic? Just how humane is humanely raised turkey?Most of us don’t know. A study by Consumer Reports last year found many consumers don’t fully understand the labels on food packages and attribute more meaning to claims than they deserve.  Between 49% and 59%of shoppers are swayed by phrases such as “natural,” “organic” and “no artificial growth hormones,” according to Consumer Reports.Yet most of the labels on meat at the grocery store don’t tell you anything about the quality of life an animal had, says Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals.

“The majority of turkeys in this country raised for food … are living in these intensive, inhumane, unhealthy conditions that consumers wouldn’t accept if they could see them,” she says. “But by the time the meat reaches the supermarket, we’re all relying on these very vague words.”

When asked for comment on how most turkeys in the U.S. are raised, National Turkey Federation spokesman Keith Williams referred to a YouTube video that the organization produced. The video shows a tour of a turkey farm, with 15,000 birds in one house. Most turkeys in the U.S. are raised in environmentally-controlled barns the size of a football field and are prepped for consumption in “a modern process that is humane, safe and efficient,” according to the federation’s website.

One of the vague terms consumers encounter on meat is “natural,” which 59% of consumers look for while shopping, according to Consumer Reports. While 70% of consumers correctly said the label means no artificial ingredients are added to the meat, most also think the claim means an animal’s feed contained no genetically modified organisms or artificial ingredients, that no growth hormones were used and that no antibiotics were used, when none of those things is necessarily true.

Here’s how to make sense of claims you might see while shopping for your Thanksgiving turkey:

• Natural: This is one of the most sought-after yet misunderstood food labels. You may also see the words naturally raised or all-natural. The term, as regulated by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture, does not describe how an animal was raised, only how it was processed. A product can be claimed natural if it is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients, including chemical preservatives, according to the USDA.

• Cage-free: While this may be a label you’d seek out when shopping for eggs, keep in mind that turkeys are always raised cage-free, in huge warehouse-size sheds.

• No hormones added: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in poultry, so this label is meaningless. Producers cannot put this label on meat unless it’s followed by the statement, “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

• No antibiotics ever: The USDA only approves phrases including “raised without antibiotics,” “no added antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever,” which indicate the animal did not receive antibiotics in their feed, water or by injection, says Julie Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service within the USDA. The phrase “antibiotic-free” is not approved for meat and poultry labels.

• Free-range: Producers must prove that an animal housed indoors had continuous access outdoors for more than half of its life, according to the USDA. .

• Humanely raised: The USDA does not define this claim . It can only be used along with an explanation of what the producer considers it to mean, such as “animals free to roam on pastures,” Schwartz says.

There are also third-party certifications  from organizations that visit farms to perform audits and have specific guidelines related to preventing neglect, mutilation and extremely crowded living conditions.  Those certifications include:

•Animal Welfare Approved: This requires that animals be raised on pasture and have the ability to exhibit natural behavior, spread their wings, fly, run and perch. The growth rate of turkeys is also limited and any confinement, caged systems and artificial insemination — the primary way turkeys reproduce — are prohibited. The labeling program is part of the organization A Greener World.

CORRECTION: USA Today forgot to mention that Certified Humane also provides pasture standards for turkeys as well.

•Certified Humane: Certification program run by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care, which has specific guidelines for the quality of indoor facilities, including the amount of light, floor space per turkey and air quality. Cages are forbidden. Turkeys must also be provided “enrichment” opportunities to encourage exploration and foraging, such as access to hay bales and perches.

•Global Animal Partnership: This organization oversees a five-step rating program primarily found on products at Whole Foods. It rates products based on criteria including whether animals were raised in uncrowded quarters, were allowed to express natural behavior, go outdoors or live on pasture.

USA TODAY Corrections & Clarifications: Due to inaccurate information from the USDA, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated how turkeys could be raised. They are never raised in cages.