Americans increasingly want to know where their food comes from and that farmed animals are treated humanely. There has been a lot of chatter and even lawsuits recently about how trustworthy our food labels are, leaving many of us feeling confused and disillusioned. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, we’re setting the record straight on what information you can rely on when choosing your holiday menu.
The Label Lies
In 2014, the notorious turkey brand Butterball, the largest turkey producer in the US, was granted the American Humane Certified label. However, MotherJones revealed this stamp offers little meaning, as its requirements mirror conventional factory farm practices.
Conventional turkeys have been bred to grow so large they can no longer reproduce naturally. They also often have crippling feet and swollen joints from supporting their unnaturally large weight. They are raised in barns with ammonia-filled air, and they are debeaked without pain relievers to avoid injuring each other in the overcrowded conditions.
Major poultry producer Perdue Farms and the largest grocer in the country, Kroger, settled lawsuits filed by The Humane Society of the United States and Compassion over Killing by agreeing to remove the word “humane” from their popular chicken brands Harvestland and Simple Truth. This was a major win for consumers, because no one would consider factory farmed chicken humanely raised.
Phrases that are commonly seen on packaging, such as “all natural” and “antibiotic-free,” have no meaning for how the animals were raised. While stronger animal welfare labeling laws are still needed, there are third-party independent labels that verify meaningful standards for higher welfare meat.
Common advice is to do your research on food suppliers or, even better, visit the farm where your food is raised. Luckily, we’ve done that for you!
Higher welfare matters not only for turkeys, but also for the environment and our health. Pasture-raised turkeys are antibiotic-free, unlike conventionally raised turkeys which are typically given antibiotics in daily feed. This practice is known to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can lead to the creation of superbugs that threaten human health. Higher welfare farming has also been linked to more nutritional benefits, such as more vitamins and less fat, compared to factory farmed meat.
Labels from independent, third-party auditors, like those listed below, ensure you get higher animal welfare.
Animal Welfare Approved
AWA audits and certifies independent family farms to ensure animals are raised under strict welfare standards. Feed containing growth hormones and animal byproducts is prohibited. Turkeys who have undergone genetic selection to the point that their welfare is negatively affected are prohibited. Turkeys are raised in free-range, forage-based, or outdoor systems, and confinement is prohibited. The turkeys also must be able to exhibit normal physical and social behaviors, such as dust bathing.
Where to Buy
Humane Farm Animal Care’s “Certified Humane” label certifies farms with standards set by a scientific committee to ensure animal welfare from birth to slaughter. The farms and slaughterhouses are subject to regular inspections by scientists and veterinarians. Each broiler turkey must be given at least two feet of space, and enrichments such as hay bales and foraging opportunities must be provided. Cages are prohibited. Access to free-range is not required, but there are strict standards for raising indoors.
Where to Buy
Global Animal Partnership (GAP Steps 1-5)
GAP, the animal welfare label found at Whole Foods, offers a 5 step rating system for farms. Step 1 prohibits cages and crates. Step 2 requires enrichment for indoor systems. Step 3 requires outdoor access. Step 4 requires pasture-based production. Step 5 prohibits physical alterations. Step 5+ indicates the entire life of the animal was spent on an integrated farm.
Where to Buy
For a deeper look at meat labels and what each one certifies, check out Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices.
Straight From the Farm
The benefit of purchasing directly from a farm is knowing precisely where your food comes from. Visiting a farm in person is ideal, but you can also visit farms’ websites to get an idea of how their birds are raised from their photos and descriptions of the conditions and practices on the farm. Just be sure such claims are verified by an independent label, like those above!
White Oak Pastures
This farm is certified by all three of the above welfare labels. White Oak Pastures raises its heritage American Standard Bronze turkeys on unconfined pastures, free to scratch, peck, and dust bathe all day. At night, the turkeys can choose to go into a safely guarded mobile house to perch. Transport to slaughter is not an issue, because the farm has a USDA-inspected facility onsite — one of very few in the country. Their products sell at Whole Foods in AL, DC, FL, GA, KY, MD, NJ, OH, PA, TN, and VA. Don’t have one near you? You can also order online in time for Thanksgiving.
This Certified Humane farm raises organic American Bronze and Royal Palms turkeys on pasture with ample shelter for resting. This environment allows the birds to express their natural behaviors. Ayrshire Farm also raises pheasants and wild turkeys for release into the farm’s woodlands, which are being replanted to provide “wildlife corridors” to various habitats. The farm is located in Middleburg, VA, but you can also order online in time for Thanksgiving.
Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch
This farm raises a variety of heritage turkey breeds that naturally mate, have long, productive outdoor lifespans, and are slow growing. Farm owner Frank Reese believes in animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and breed conservancy — bringing heritage poultry back from the brink of extinction. Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch is located in Lindsborg, KS, but you can also order online via Heritage Foods USA in time for Thanksgiving.
A Word on Cost
We acknowledge that pastured-raised, higher welfare meat can be more expensive. There is good reason for this, as the slow growing breeds, healthy food, outdoor space, and shelter are more costly to the farmer than intensive factory farming. However, by eating less meat overall and opting for cheaper plant-based protein such as beans more often, your overall grocery bill doesn’t have to change.
Check out some of these wallet-friendly side dishes for Thanksgiving, to help balance the cost of the meal! Just be mindful some may have animal products.
Budget-Friendly Thanksgiving Menu, by Food Network
Budget Side Dish Recipes, by Taste of Home
Vegan Recipes of Thanksgiving, by EatingWell
Affordable Thanksgiving Recipes, by Food and Wine
Vegan Thanksgiving Dinner, by VegKitchen
It’s also important to remember your dollar is your vote for what food companies decide to produce and sell. By choosing higher quality, higher welfare meat, you are letting food companies know that consumers want farm animals to be treated better.
The Turkey Alternative
We couldn’t end this guide without suggesting a plant-based turkey alternative. These can be more budget-friendly, more sustainable, and more compassionate choices for your Thanksgiving meal. There are a variety of meat-free "turkey" options on the market that are available in most grocery store chains. In addition, there are dozens of homemade plant-based turkey recipes online.