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Don’t run afoul on Thanksgiving, buy humanely raised, veg-fed turkeys

October 8th, 2008

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If you’re planning a traditional Thanksgiving, you’ll be needing a bird. This year, organic and pastured turkeys are more available than ever. Check your local grocery now, and get on a list if need be. If you really want to try something new, reserve an heirloom variety bird or try one that’s been pre-soaked in brine.

Here are some places to look for a turkey that’s been raised on organic feed, and allowed a more humane existence.

  • Local Harvest — If you’re into local heirloom turkeys or other pedigree varieties you may be too late! But don’t beat yourself up over it, local farmers in Texas have told us that many connoisseurs place their orders months ahead of time. Still, there’s a flock of healthier birds waiting. You can order free-range, pastured, organic turkeys online and have them shipped. You’ll pay for the privilege of all those hormone-free, pesticide-free certifications — from $150 to $250 a bird. But these are BIG birds, and they’re freer of chemicals than you are, having been fed organic foods, no additives and animal byproducts. Local Harvest can also direct you to local farmers that sell direct to the public. The online marketplace also offers a panoply of pesticide-free fruits and veggies, including the requisite Thanksgiving cranberries.
  • Mary’s Free Range Turkey in Fresno, California. These turkeys are sold locally and in a variety of markets across country. Mary’s touts its turkeys as having a better life than on many commercial farms. They are raised with four times more space on a diet of grains and veg proteins with no antibiotics, preservatives or additives, according to company literature. Rick Pitman, an owner of the 50-plus year old operation, told us last year that customers are increasingly concerned, not just with how organic turkey meat is healthier for them, but how the turkey was treated on the farm. See that article (“Don’t panic there’s still time to order organic“) for more help on sorting out all the turkey labels (organic, organically fed, cage-free) as you ponder what turkey permutation you need for the holiday feast. (Oh and vegetarians, please hold on, we’ll be running some great seasonal recipes from chefs around the country very soon.)
  • Whole Foods Market — Our default healthy foods grocer is standing by this season with turkey choices that include birds raised on local family-owned and operated farms, including some heirloom varieties. Whole Foods also offers smoked, pre-brined fresh turkeys, and frozen turkeys. But no matter the type, all the turkeys offered at Whole Foods have been raised on “a vegetarian diet with no animal by-products and they have not been administered antibiotics,” said spokeswoman Cathy Cochran-Lewis. In addition, the organic turkeys have been fed grains that have not been treated with pesticides or herbicides. “Whole Foods Market’s quality standards take into account the comfort, physical safety and health of the turkeys that we offer,” she said. And after that, the palates of customers.  “The free-range and organic birds are our most popular, best-selling turkeys,” says Theo Weening, Whole Foods’ meat coordinator. “Our shoppers really love the flavor of these birds.” The store offers turkey cooking tips on its website.

Ms. Cochran-Lewis said it was too soon to gauge demand for organic and free-range turkeys this year; but a press release from the company notes that free-range and organic birds are the most popular turkeys — at Whole Foods. (They also offer advice on how to cook the roasted bird.)

As for the conventional grocers, organic and veg-fed turkeys are making appearances at Safeway, Kroger and other chains. Publix in the Southeastern United States is offering more through its GreenWise markets, which are freestanding or in-store areas targeting consumers who want natural and organic foods.

But overall, organic turkeys remain a small fraction of the market, according to industry spokespersons.

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