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Your Free Range Turkey May Not be All that Free

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on November 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's nearly that time of the year again. Family members from across the nation will soon be congregating at your dinner table, eager to get a slice of that free range turkey you purchased at your local grocery store.

Before you selected this year's bird, you probably read its packaging, including the poultry label touting it as "free range."

But you might wonder what the truth is behind these labels. And what the USDA actually requires of producers.

In your mind, the phrase "free range" conjures images of an idyllic farm in the countryside. The turkey - that is now cooked and prepped for your diners to devour - lived a great life in the outdoors, wandering the hillsides and eating only the freshest... whatever it is that turkeys eat.

Here is what the USDA requires of producers claiming their turkey is free range or free roaming:

"Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

This might just mean that a bird has been labeled "free range" simply because whatever structure is used to house the the animal has access to the outdoors in the form of a small yard. The standard doesn't mandate how long birds can spend outdoors, or how big the outdoors area should be.

So it could also mean that the turkey did have the dreamy outdoors life that you envisioned it living before it made its way onto your dinner plate. The USDA labeling requirement sets a minimum standard for what's considered free-range. It doesn't set a maximum.

Savvy shoppers and bird lovers might want to look beyond the "free range" turkey label at the store. Poultry labeling can help you pick the perfect protein course for your Thanksgiving meal, though the requirements may not be as strict as you might think.

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