According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to qualify for the "Free Range" chicken or turkey designation, "Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." In other words, you can keep your turkey in a dark warehouse, open a door (once) to a patch of grass and the "access to the outside" distinction has been met. The turkey could have been free-range and thus, qualifies for the labeling.
This loophole shows us that the USDA labeling criteria is in desperate need of updating and revision.
In our desire to eat healthy we have also jumped on the Organic Food bandwagon, looking for foods that predate modern agribusiness where pesticides, antibiotics, genetic engineering, hormones, and petroleum based fertilizers are used to mass produce the food we eat.
Mounting evidence shows that our food manufacturing is making us fat and sick. For many of us, there has to be a better way. For example, eating a "free-range" turkey that spent its days idyllically scratching up bugs and pecking at grass behind the hen house sounds a lot more healthy than eating one that had its beaks clipped, was housed in a dark warehouse, jammed against others so tight that it couldn't walk, was force fed genetically engineered corn, and then slaughtered. Which one would you choose? You'd opt for that first turkey. But guess what? The second turkey meets the USDA criteria for organic "free range" turkey, the first does not.
Incredulously, your "wholesome turkey" ate bugs and grass (its natural food) which can't be certified organic, whereas the warehouse turkey ate certified organic genetically engineered grain (an unnatural food), and thus wins the coveted label. Even more troubling is that when organic grain is unavailable or costs more than twice that of regular grain, the USDA allows the farmer to feed regular non-organic grain yet still use the organic label because he meant well (you have Congressman Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia to thank for that).
One solution, however impractical, is to find out how your turkey was raised by meeting the farmer directly. If you don't have time to get to know the person raising your food then look for the words, "pasture raised" or "sustainably raised" on the package. Until the USDA changes the way manufacturers are allowed to label our food, we are all going to have to become more aggressive consumers and shoppers.
Steven R. Gundry, MD is the Medical Director and Founder of the International Heart and Lung Institute, Palm Springs, CA and author of "Dr. Gundry's Diet Evolution: Turn off the Genes that are Killing You", Crown Publishing