6 Questions to Ask Before Buying a ‘Humane’ Turkey

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By Lynne Curry, Civil Eats Posted November 21, 2016

What you need to know about label claims, transparency, and animal welfare before buying your Thanksgiving Day turkey.

Turkeys are the centerpiece of the American Thanksgiving, and buying a bird this time of year gives many of us a chance to vote with our forks in an important way. But short of visiting a farm or buying directly from a farmer, how can we be sure that the bird we’re buying has been raised humanely? The answer? It’s complicated. Here are some questions to ask.

1. Is it certified organic?

In 2015, 74 farms raised $70 million worth of certified organic turkeys in the U.S. While the exact growth of organic turkey isn’t possible to track, organic poultry as a category grew 9.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Many consumers look to the organic label for proof that the animals were treated well, but the seal itself doesn’t guarantee that the turkeys spent any significant amount of time outdoors. However, that could change soon, as we reported earlier this year. New animal welfare standards proposed in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices(OLPP) rule are still awaiting finalization by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If they pass, we could see poultry farmers held to higher standards when it comes to the living conditions, care, transport, and slaughter of the animals, as well as access to the outdoors, in particular. Because the current rules allow organic facilities to use porches as “outdoor access,” the OLPP has been hailed by a coalition of 15 animal advocacy organizations for closing a gaping loophole.

For now, however, an “organic” label on a turkey—without additional third-party animal welfare certification—may simply refer to the fact that the animal ate organic feed, i.e., the corn and soy in the feed were not cultivated using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

2. Is it “free range”?

One important category for poultry is “free-range,” also called “free-roaming.” As things stand now, this claim is subject to misunderstandings on the consumer side and misuse on the producer side.

For most consumers, free-range and similar claims on labels suggest that the turkeys lived out on pasture with space to express their natural behaviors. However, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has multiple working definitions of free-range(“free access to the out-of-doors for over 51 percent of their lives,” for example) that essentially allow producers to define the term themselves. 

In December 2015, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) issued a report on the free-range claim after investigating 88 poultry products. FSIS records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act documented leniency and inconsistency in the agency’s verification process. For instance, 17 products received free-range label approval without any specific evidence, including Norbest Turkey, Diestel Natural Young turkey (labeled “range grown”), and Shelton’s Young Turkey.

The AWI report concluded that the free-range claim alone, “is not sufficient to assure customers that animals were provided proper outdoor access.”

While FSIS recently released updated guidance to the label approval process for meat and poultry claims for the first time in 14 years (the agency is accepting public comments until December 5), it’s unclear whether the changes effectively addressing the gaps between consumer expectations of free-range and producer practices.

“If [consumers] want something better than factory farmed turkey products, free-range is a starting point, ” AWI’s farm animal policy associate Michelle Pawliger told Civil Eats. But she’s doubtful that the FSIS review of the label approval process will be substantial enough. “I don’t think they’re going to be making the kinds of changes [that will allow] consumers to feel comfortable knowing what the claims are,” she said.

3. Is it certified by an animal welfare organization?

The most promising practice for strengthening trust in claims of humane poultry production practices across the board is third-party certification. Animal welfare organizations such as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership (GAP) do in-depth voluntary audits in hopes of providing the most transparency for humane animal treatment and living conditions from birth through slaughter, including meaningful outdoor access.

“Certifications are the stand-in for visiting the farm ourselves,” said Ben Goldsmith, executive director of Farm Forward, an organization committed to strategically ending factory farming.

But not all third-party animal welfare labels are the same. And the wide array of certifiers and their varying standards can be difficult to distill onto a label.

AWI, Farm Forward, and other animal welfare groups point to the GAP 5-step programas the vanguard among certifications. Created in 2008, GAP is a tiered rating system that offers merely “no cages, no crates, and no crowding” at Step 1, and an “animal-centered” approach at Step 5. The program is most strongly associated with partner company Whole Foods, and Compass Foods USA, Target, Amazon, Walmart, and Fred Meyer also sell and serve GAP-rated products.

But some believe that program also sends clouded messages to consumers. The program has been criticized for being not much better than industrial farming models at Step 1, but lauded by others for enhanced animal welfare outcomes from Steps 3 – 5.

GAP standards for each species stipulate highly detailed care, management, housing, transport, and slaughter requirements at each of the five steps. “If you have time to sit down and talk with customers then they get it,” said GAP’s executive director Anne Malleau. “You don’t always have that luxury.” She detailed how the program’s current efforts entail making product information easier to find on the program’s website and a soon-to-be released label to communicate more simply what makes GAP a reliable third-party program. In addition, GAP implemented version 2.0 of its turkey standards in April 2016. “I feel really confident that if a customer picks up a GAP step three turkey, they’re going to get what a step three really means,” she said.

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4. Is it a heritage breed?

As many animal rights advocates see it, whether or not your turkey was raised on pasture is less important than the animal’s genetics.

The modern-day Broad Breasted White turkey has been the product of genetic selection since the 1960s. It is a hybrid engineered for fast-growth in confinement, an achievement that made industrialized poultry production possible. Unlike most American turkeys, which are inherently curious, active, and long-living, the Broad Breasted White cannot run, roost, reproduce, or take part in a number of other natural behaviors thanks to selective breeding.

Broad-breasted turkey strains reach a mature weight in just 12 weeks, or less than half the time it takes heritage birds. Overdeveloped chests, underdeveloped legs, and rapid weight gain cause a host of debilitating health issues for conventional turkeys, including joint and leg problems that inhibit mobility. Counter to public understanding, some animal welfare experts argue that putting such birds out on pasture can actually make their overall welfare much worse.

“You can’t just put that bird in a better environment and think that the problems are going to go away,” said Leah Garces, U.S. executive director of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). “That bird suffers because of its genetics.”

Pressure from CIWF, Animal Welfare League, and other groups has recently convinced several large companies to commit to slower-growing broiler chickens, which CIWF says make up 95 percent of all farm animals consumed each year. Earlier this month, two giant food service company Compass Group USA and Aramark announced their commitment to slower-growing chicken by 2024 by adopting GAP standards. This followed Purdue’s agreement to examine its own fast-growth breeding practices last June.

“Anytime you slow down growth, you improve the lives of the animals on these farms,” said Goldsmith of Farm Forward. He considers these genetic changes—not simply putting poultry out on pasture—as the only way to get “really serious” about improving poultry welfare.

Of course, turkey is only a tiny segment of the overall poultry industry. According to the National Chicken Council, consumers ate 16 pounds of turkey compared to 90 pounds of chicken in 2015, but shifts in the turkey sector have the potential to transform how all poultry are raised. Several turkey producers, including White Oak Pastures and Whole Foods brands, now offer slow-growing strains of turkey that recapture some of the natural behaviors and physical characteristics appropriate for a life outdoors.

Other producers like Mary’s and BN Ranch, offer true heritage breeds listed by the Livestock Conservancy. Demand for these products, according to several producers contacted, is growing by double digits each year.

The revised GAP turkey standards also include growth rate restrictions for all five steps in the program. Organic Valley CEO and GAP board member George Siemon said, “Turkeys are way overbred and we have to find a way back to breeds that allow animals to have their natural behaviors.” Like many others in the industry, Siemon predicts that slower-growth will become as common for chickens and turkeys as “cage free” is for laying hens.

5. Has it been vetted by experts?

Another new tool is Buyingpoultry.com, an online and mobile shopping tool from Farm Forward underwritten by the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It’s now available in beta with a full release slated for early December. Every product in this extensive database is evaluated based on a strict set of animal welfare ratings backed by scientists, farmers, and advocates.

Buyingpoultry.com allows consumers to look up multiple poultry brands and find higher welfare products by brand, retailer, and location. By aggregating all of the confusing claims and labels on poultry products into an “avoid,” “better,” or “best” rating, it advises consumers to make values-based purchasing decisions for eggs, chickens, and turkeys.

6. Is the company responsible?

host of consumer and industry surveys show that consumer expectations of animal welfare do not align with current industry practices. Coupled with the lack of transparency, this puts the “onus of responsibility,” according to AWI, on the consumer to determine the veracity of product claims. “People have lost trust in the food system,” said Garces of CIWF.

She notes that the consistent pressure from the retail market is influencing change throughout the supply chain—from restaurants and supermarkets to institutional buyers and corporations—to provide more humane options.

“The consumer can try to do their best, and they should look for certifications to try to pick the best brand,” said Garces. “But the companies need to take responsibility. It’s where the market is headed.”

This piece originally appeared on Civil Eats.

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