How to read turkey labels

Nov 11, 2010 at 3:12 p.m. ET

During the next couple of weeks, we’ll be heading to the store to pick out the perfect centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner—the turkey. What seems like a pretty straightforward task can become overwhelming when you begin comparing labels on the birds: natural vs. organic or fresh vs. frozen.

whole raw turkey

These phrases aren't haphazard, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set definitions and standards for certain words that appear on poultry labels. Before you head to the supermarket, make sure you know the meaning of these 10 turkey terms, defined by the USDA.

Basted (or self-basted)

The turkey has been injected with, or marinated in, ingredients meant to enhance the flavor including butter, broth, stock, spices, and more.

Free-range (or free-roaming)

These birds were allowed access to the outdoors for at least half of their lives. Poultry producers have to prove this to the USDA before they're allowed to add this phrase to their labels.


The turkey was quickly chilled after processing, but not frozen. It should be pliable to the touch, not rock solid. In technical terms, it has been kept above 26 degrees Fahrenheit. When you buy a fresh turkey, keep it in a refrigerator that is set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and use it within one to two days.


The turkey was flash frozen after processing to bring it to a safe temperature, then stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Store it in the freezer.

Hen and Tom

A female and male turkey, respectively.

Minimal processing

The turkey wasn't altered much from its raw state while getting ready for the supermarket.

Natural (or all natural)

Birds with no artificial flavors, colors, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients; it also has been minimally processed.

No hormones added

Hormones aren't allowed when raising poultry, so this label is irrelevant.


The turkey has met organic standards set by the National Organic Program (among them, no genetic engineering). For a bird to earn an organic label, the farmer and the companies that handle and process it must be certified organic.

More Thanksgiving Turkey facts

Safety tips for turkey fryers

Thanksgiving kitchen safety

Traveling safely with a turkey dinner