(HUMANE FARMING) This Thanksgiving, Duke University student Courtney Schatt asks turkey lovers alike, “Is your free-range turkey really free?” She explains how the free-range label leaves room for farmers to manipulate regulations and misinform customers as the USDA defines free-range poultry as “having access to the outdoors” without specifying the duration and frequency of such outdoor access. Read on for more information on free-range poultry and how to know your turkey is truly free. — Global Animal

Is your free-range turkey really free? Photo Credit: AP

Courtney Schatt

This Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for. I am thankful for Duke football’s win over UNC, for the upcoming influx of Christmas music on the radio and to have finally reached an age where I no longer have to sit at the kids table during the holidays. Most importantly, though I am thankful that I am healthy and have a clean and spacious  roof  to live  under. Unfortunately, the free-­range turkeys that will be consumed this Thanksgiving cannot be thankful for the same things.

For the holidays, many have opted to purchase a free-range turkey instead of the standard, industrially produced turkey. When I first heard the term “free-range,” the first image that came to mind was a green, open pasture where turkeys roamed free. Apparently, this was only wishful thinking. What consumers don’t know is that they are not truly getting what think they are. How free is free-range? Deeper investigation into the United States Department of Agriculture free-range label reveals that farmers can manipulate ambiguous regulations, misinforming consumers about what they are truly receiving.

The USDA defines free-range poultry as “having access to the outdoors.” What the USDA fails to specify is the duration and frequency of the outdoor access, the density of the housing facility or the quality of the outdoor space. A farmer who gives their turkey access to a small window for two minutes preceding its death is still in compliance with the USDA regulation. Perhaps that turkey was also given steroids prior to its death, because as it stands, the regulation also fails to regulate steroid use.

As animal welfare activist Michael Pollan witnessed, following his visit to a free-range farm, free-range poultry face the same health problems, antibiotic exposure and inhumane living conditions that their factory-farmed counterparts endure. At the farm, Pollan interacted with a free-range chicken named Rosie. Despite the positive connotation  that her label presented,  Rosie actually lived amongst 20,000 other turkeys in a closed shed with a small door that remained shut for the first six weeks of her life and was opened briefly two weeks prior to her death.

Farmers use the free-range label as a shield to hide the true conditions under which their poultry, like Rosie, is raised. In order to ensure the health and well being of both the animals and the consumers, free-range standards must be made more specific.

The first step towards a tighter USDA free-range regulation is a more informed constituency. This can, in turn, lead to a larger opposition base, and consequential pressure on the USDA to institute changes to their current free-range regulation system. What can you—the health- and environmentally-conscious consumer—do about this? Advocate for change. Take advantage of word of mouth and social media. Advocate for tighter and more specific USDA regulations.

While I enjoy my Christmas music at the “adult” table this Thanksgiving, I can proudly say that the free-range turkey on my plate was truly “free.” I visited the farm, witnessed the conditions under which the turkey was raised, and investigated what was in their feed. Before you purchase your free-range turkey this Thanksgiving, speak directly to the farmer that you purchase it from. Make sure that you know exactly where your food is coming from and what the hefty free-range price tag is getting you.