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Tricky Turkey Terms

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November 12, 2012

With Thanksgiving just over a week away it’s time to start making those turkey purchases or pre-orders. Whether you are purchasing a conventional frozen turkey, or considering pre-ordering an already thawed heritage variety, what does this all mean? It can be tricky trying to decide when it may be appropriate to pay a little more for a certain type of labeled turkey.

As a proponent of a more eco- and animal-friendly farming practices we purchase and pre-order a free range, heritage turkey. However, this may not be the best option for everyone. Here are some of the common labels you will find on turkeys this holiday season courtesy of the National Turkey Federation:


Conventional turkeys are raised in scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barns that provide maximum protection from predators, disease and bad weather. They are given medications to prevent illness and to suppress organisms that are potentially harmful. This is the type of turkey that most Americans associate with Thanksgiving. These turkeys are typically sold fresh and frozen in supermarkets across the United States.

Free Range

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the term “free range” or “free roaming” can be used to describe poultry that “has been allowed access to the outside.” There are a limited number of “free range” turkeys being produced and most of them are for the holiday season. There are fewer “free range” turkeys because of geographic and climatological considerations, making warm weather the most conducive for allowing birds access to the outside.


A turkey labeled “organic” has the approval and certification of the USDA. The government standard includes strict regulations on organic feed and free range access and allows no antibiotics. There are also fewer “organic” turkeys for some of the same reasons that there are fewer “free range” turkeys.

Broad-Breasted White

This is the most common type of turkey raised in the United States. This farm-raised domesticated turkey has been transformed in shape and size to meet the demands of consumer’s taste preferences. This turkey yields a higher breast meat content, which is highly regarded by the U.S. consumer.


The term refers to the turkey breeds indigenous to the Americas, dating to early Colonial times. They are Beltsville Small White, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze and White Holland. As a result of the market dominance of the conventional Broad-Breasted White, these breeds had been slowly shrinking in population. In 2001, Slow Food USA launched an initiative with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to work with small farms to return the heritage turkey to the marketplace. Heritage turkeys grow at a much slower rate than Broad-Breasted Whites. The result is a smaller bird with flavor some describe as gamy; and a thicker layer of fat surrounding the breast.

Do you stick with the conventional turkey, or have you tried a heritage variety in the past?

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