Still looking for the perfect 'free range' Thanksgiving turkey?
Never fear. You still have time. Place an order by tonight (or maybe tomorrow night) and you’ll have a turkey. But not just any turkey. This is a turkey that, as we speak, lives and breathes on a free range farmstead in all his or her gallinaceous glory.
All those Whole Foods birds? They invariably best the standard supermarket Butterball for flavor, freshness and potential for “free range” living. But even at a fancy purveyor of expensive poultry, what’s the guarantee that “free range” really means what you hope it does?
Ummm...almost none. But then, I guess it all depends on how you define the term. And there’s the rub. Because what you think of when you imagine “free range” is almost certainly at odds with the poultry industry’s standards for the same.
Confused? Here’s a primer:
#1 Historical, legal definition
From a historical legal standpoint, free range is a term derived from cattle farming. It's a legal term that denotes open access to land with no fencing in the way. Owners of herds in free range designated areas are not liable for the damage their animals do. Those who choose to restrict cattle-related damage must fence cattle out.
In case it's not already obvious, this traditional, legal designation does not really apply to poultry.
#2 Animal husbandry definition
In terms of animal husbandry, the more appropriate term for “free range” as it applies to poultry is actually “yarding.” This means the birds are contained within a fence. It may or may not mean the birds have free access to an non-restrictive area of ground. For that, we must refer to the...
#3 Behavioral definition
This definition addresses the flock’s access to an expansive area of ground which contains them but doesn’t substantively restrict their movements. These birds are the ones we usually envision when we buy those “cage free” and “free range” eggs at the supermarket. They’re the ones that feed off insects and other vegetation on that bucolic plot of land of our imaginations.
#4 The USDA definition
The US Department of Agriculture’s definition is the most confounding one of all. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that poultry raised for meat have "access to the outside" in order to receive the "free range" or "free roaming" certification. Whether that access means a nearby door goes up and down twice a day or something equally ineffectual, we don’t really know since no definition of “outside access” has been adequately established.
Concerning egg layers there is no legal, USDA designation for free range. None. Any carton that says “free range” does so with nary a regulation to follow. Likewise for the term, “cage-free,” which in some cases may mean the cage does not conform to the most restrictive standards the USDA will allow. In other cases it means nothing at all.
As to every other kind of meat––pork, beef or bison, for example––“free range” has no USDA definition. There’s no regulation for the term outside the meat bird industry (for which we’ve established it means little to nothing, anyway). Instead, the consumer must rely on producer say-so that the animals were well-raised, as the term connotes.
It’s gotten so that the concept of “free range” is an industry joke––even (especially?) for the meat bird producers. That’s why some human-oriented poultry farmers have taken to trying out some new words to differentiate their well-raised product from others.
“Pastured poultry,” they’ve tried (meaning they’re raised on pastures with near-unlimited access to land). Or “Heritage turkeys,” they’re sometimes called, by way of intimating that small flocks are raised by caring farmers more interested in poultry welfare than cup size.
In case you’re interested, here’s the definition of “Heritage turkey” according to the Heritage Turkey Foundation:
“Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. Turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:
1-Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%.
2-Long productive lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years.
3-Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26 – 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century."
But it’s not easy to tell who’s raising what. And scouring the Web does you little good unless you already have some idea of which organizations’ recommendations to follow when sourcing a humanely raised and on-the-premises slaughtered bird.
Despite the confusion and the trial-and-error fraught nature of the turkey-sourcing process, I seem to have gotten lucky in recent years. Every Thanksgiving I buy a bird from a small producer. And every year I manage to find a bird more delicious and more carefully handled than the next (slaughtered the day before, I’m told, then iced and FedExed).
It’s not inexpensive. But it’s only once a year. And you, too, can get in on the act. If not for this year, then for the next––or for next month's holiday bird, perhaps. With that in mind, here are some resources and options to consider:
Local Harvest (for locating just about any sustainable agricultural product)
EatWild (a website for sourcing sustainable meats)
Heritage Turkey Foundation (lots of resources)
Mary's Turkeys (West coast producer)
Heritage Foods (turkeys aplenty if you order by tonight, I'm told)
PS: Anyone interested in this year's Khuly-bird recipe, look into this grilled turkey approach. I'll be swapping out some of the spices but I won't be skimping on the fennel.