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Is Cage-Free Turkey Actually More Humane?

The vast majority of industrially farmed turkeys do not live in cages, but that doesn't mean they have it easy.

by Nick Rose
Nov 16 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Jessica Reeder

Consumers like to buy things that make them feel better about themselves.

A well-designed logo with a couple of well-chosen words is enough to make a lot of people opt for more expensive products. Take GMO-free salt for instance: It's a label that exists, despite the fact that salt has no genes.

READ: Brands Are Putting 'GMO-Free' Labels on Products That Don't Even Have Genes

"Low-fat" candies sound like a nice snacking solution, but they are packed with high calories from corn syrup. How about "vegetarian-fed eggs"? Sounds great, too. Sure, every chicken since the primordial egg has been omnivorous by nature, but eating an unborn chick just doesn't feel as bad when you know it comes from the womb of a strict, vegetarian chicken.

What better way to not feel guilty about America's annual slaughter of roughly 300 million turkeys than by consuming ones that claim to be "young," "hormone-free," or, perhaps the most humane-sounding: "cage-free"?

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the problem is that every one of those terms is redundant under current US regulation. "By law, turkeys aren't getting hormones on these factory farms, so that's a completely meaningless term, but we see prices getting jacked for this, which is really a shame," ASPCA director of farm animal welfare campaigns Daisy Freund told The Detroit News.

Freund also pointed to the fact that "every single turkey sold in the United States is young," and that seven in ten consumers are willing to spend more for humanely raised poultry, "They just want to know where to put their money, and they're being misled." The ASPCA also made it clear, in their estimation, there are only three certifications that have "real standards and represent significantly better breeding conditions" for the lean, delicious, and usually overcooked (sorry, Grandma) bird. They are Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership, and Animal Welfare Approved.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of turkeys are not raised in cagessomething that even PETA acknowledges—and that the USDA strictly prohibits the use of hormones, it doesn't stop turkey purveyors from slapping meaningless labels on their products in the hopes of differentiating their red-wattled birds from the others.

For consumers who do not wish to spend all of their time reading and verifying labels at the grocery store, the ASPCA suggests looking for solutions closer to home, "You can try speaking with your local farmers about their practices to determine whether they're similarly unconventional and using better welfare."

Giving up the convenience of the grocery store butterball and finding a farm may seem like a bit of a drastic measure for the average American, but a recent study by Consumer Reports showed that "most US consumers are environmentally and socially conscious when it comes to the food they eat." The report concluded that while "local farmers, protecting the environment, and fair conditions for farm workers" are guiding principles for food buyers, most Americans are easily swayed by these types of labels, something which has led to a "growing awareness of misleading food labeling practices."

Despite repeated claims of filth and mistreatment in industrial turkey farms by animal rights groups, the National Turkey Federation, for its part, maintains that the well-being of the animal is paramount. When reached for comment, the National Turkey Federation told MUNCHIES that conditions in their barns are a far cry from the picture painted by activists. "First, turkeys are always cage-free," Keith Williams said. "Our association has members that include farmer co-ops and both regional and national brand companies. They grow birds that either strut freely in the barn protected from weather extremes and other animals or are raised outdoors in a field or pasture under the care of the farmer."

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