Bird Words: Translating the Label

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The terms and labeling that describe turkey varieties and farming methods can be confusing. Here's a list of common turkey terminology.


This is the bird that Americans have come to associate with Thanksgiving over the past 50 years. Typically sold frozen in supermarkets across America, it is the hallmark of behemoth poultry processors such as Cargill, Pilgrim's Pride and ConAgra Foods. Where and when the turkey was raised and slaughtered is omitted from the label. Often, the turkey is injected with a butter-salt solution and labeled as "self-basting." The bird may also include artificial colorings and preservatives.

Free Range

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the term "free range" or "free roaming" can be used to describe poultry that "has been allowed access to the outside." Such a loose definition, without a government standard, leaves lots of room for interpretation. As long as a bird has outdoor access, it can live in a warehouse-style shed with 20,000 other birds and still be labeled "free range."


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.


This is the term of choice for small farms that raise their turkeys outdoors, on pasture, as a way to distinguish themselves from the loosey-goosey "free range" label. Rob Ferguson of Cibola Farms refers to his turkeys as "grass range." "They're standing on green grass," Ferguson said, "not in a cage with a door to the outside." Like free range, this term exists without federal guidelines.

Broad-Breasted White

This is the most common type of turkey raised in this country, particularly on a large industrial scale. Although it is the turkey of choice in conventional poultry circles, many small farms are now raising the Broad-Breasted White on pasture. It yields a higher white-meat ratio.


The term refers to the family of naturally mating 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, even nearing extinction. In 2001, Slow Food USA launched an initiative with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to work with small farms to encourage returning the heritage turkey to the marketplace, and the numbers have been steadily climbing. Heritage turkeys grow at a much slower rate than Broad-Breasted Whites. The result is a smaller bird but one with a more balanced dark-to-white meat ratio; a more intense, sometimes gamy flavor; and a thicker layer of fat surrounding the breast.

-- Kim O'Donnel

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company