It can be tough to navigate all the different choices of Thanksgiving turkeys available at the grocery store.

Food companies often place labels on the turkey packaging to capture the consumers’ attention and differentiate themselves from the competition in the meat case.

However, consumers don’t need to spend a lot of money for a label to ensure they are getting “the best” turkey to serve at Thanksgiving, explains Gretta Irwin, with the Iowa Turkey Federation.

“A label is not going to depict quality of a product. Consumers need to remember that as they look at all the different labels,” Irwin says. “All (turkey) products are top-notch quality, no matter how they are labeled, because they receive federal or state inspection, which is what guarantees the quality of our meat products.

“So after that, the label just becomes a personal choice. If you want to have a product that is free-range or organic, that is a personal choice, and we respect that. But it does not mean that the quality of the product is any better.”

Food labels are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS is responsible for ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products.

Below is how the FSIS defines labels you may see when shopping for a Thanksgiving turkey at the grocery store or straight from a farm.

No hormones:

Hormones are not allowed in raising poultry. All turkeys are free of hormones and free of steroids. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Chemical free:

The term is not allowed to be used on a label.

Free range or free roaming:

Farmers must demonstrate to the FSIS that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

No antibiotics:

The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

When farmers use antibiotics in livestock, they do so according to label and dosing instructions approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and under the care of a veterinarian. Turkeys must undergo a withdrawal period, as regulated by the FDA, before they can be sent to market to ensure they are free of antibiotics. For more details about antibiotic use in turkey production, visit the National Turkey Federation’s website.


To receive the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s certified organic label, poultry must be raised without antibiotics, allowed access to the outdoors and receive 100 percent certified organic feed, which can’t include genetically modified (GMO) grains. Find more information on organic labels on the USDA’s website .


A product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and only minimally processed.

FSIS offers a list of meat and poultry labeling terms on its website.

Return to The Iowa Dish.