By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now
When we think about Thanksgiving, we think about Plymouth, Pilgrims, and of course turkey. What would Thanksgiving be without a turkey?
For the longest time when it comes to food, we’ve gone by the notion that bigger is better. The bigger the turkey, the better it will taste. Unfortunately this process of thinking led to the inhumane treatment of animals and use of growth hormones, in order to turn a quick profit and satisfy customers.
Lately, though, people have become significantly more conscious about what chemicals animals are exposed to, because it directly relates to them when they are putting it in their body. And that has led to some options when it comes to picking your bird from among the 270 million or so turkeys raised in the United States. ( In 2008, 273 million turkeys were raised in the United States, according to the National Turkey Federation.)
If you just walk into almost any grocery store you will see that there are multiple turkeys from which to choose. They are labeled with all sorts of eye-catching phrases such as, pesticide-free, organic and all-natural. But what do these words really mean?
Don’t let the lingo scare you. National Turkey Federation’s Vice President o f Marketing and Communications, Sherrie Rosenblatt broke down the differences:
- Conventional: Conventional turkeys are raised in scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barns that provide maximum protection from predators, disease and bad weather.
- Organic: An “organic” turkey must be certified by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service to have been raised on land that has been free of prohibited pesticides and other substances for at least three years; the bird’s food would also be pesticide free (though that’s no guaranteed that it’s pure in every way). Technically speaking, the turkey produced must consist of at least 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substance approved on the “National List” or non-organically product agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Visit the USDA AMS website for more information.
- Heirloom: Heirloom turkeys take much longer to raise that a conventional or organic turkey. Because of the added costs, these turkeys are much more expensive than a conventionally raised turkey. The taste and appearance are also much different than a conventionally raised turkey. The light meat is almond colored and the dark meat is cappuccino, with both having a firm texture. Heirloom turkeys are bred from breeds of birds that pre-date the industrial food era, and are typically raised on smaller traditional farms, and let run on pasture or are grain-fed. Can’t find them at your grocery store? Check your local CSA or farmer’s market, or online at Local Harvest.org.
Two other types of turkeys not mentioned are pastured and free-range turkeys. The difference between the two is free-range turkeys are not confined to cages, but “range” can mean within a barn. Pastured turkeys are raised outside and their meat may be richer in omega oils because of their grassy diet.
Over the past few years sales of organic have continued to increase, according to Whole Foods Market.
“It’s a little too early to speak to this for this year since we tend to sell more fresh birds (than frozen). The bulk of the sales generally happen in the two weeks prior to the holidays. We are prepared for and anticipate that the trend will continue,” said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, National Media Relations Coordinator for Whole Foods Market – Central.
While the numbers are rising, it may still be difficult to find just the right turkey. Sprouts, a familiar market to organic shoppers, does not sell any organic turkeys, a spokesman said.
Wegmans has a couple of options for shoppers. The store carries an organic choice, the Jaindl Organic Grand Champion turkey, and their own Wegmans’ Grand Champion turkey, which is not certified organic but is raised in a humane and healthy way.
“The Wegmans Grand Champion turkey is not organically raised; however it is a free range bird that has been raised without antibiotics and no animal by-products in the feed,” said Jeanne Colleluori, Communications & Media Specialist for Wegmans Consumer Affairs.
Whole Foods Market might be the store with the largest variety of healthy turkey choices.
“Our stringent quality standards require that every turkey we sell meets our animal welfare standards, which include no antibiotics, ever, and no animal by-products in the feed. They also are not injected with any solutions or marinades,” said Cochran-Lewis.
Heirloom turkeys are more commonly available at Whole Foods stores. “The flavor and composition of the heirloom turkey is the closest we have to turkeys of yesteryear. The turkeys tend to have dark spots on the skin which is natural to the breed (results in their darker feathers),” added Cochran-Lewis. Another benefit to heirloom turkeys is they require less cooking time due to the lower amount of fat.
Whole Foods also offers other organic Thanksgiving alternatives. THeir 365 Organic brand makes includes stuffing mixes, cranberry sauces, broths, truffles, and caramels and they have a vegan pumpkin pecan pie recipe that will make your mouth water.
You can even skip your trip to the grocery store all together and buy your turkey online this year. Williams-Sonoma offers their California-raised, free-range, Willie Bird Organic Turkey that can be delivered right to your front door. Consumers give the Willie Bird Turkey rave reviews; it’s worth taking a look at.
Organic and Heirloom turkeys are a bit pricier, but they are worth it if you’re seeking a gourmet or leaner taste, and if you want to support the way the turkeys were raised.
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