Pop quiz: What's one of the only animals we eat that's native to North America? If you guessed the turkey — which you probably could, given the headline and the photo above — you'd be right. Native Americans hunted, ate, and even domesticated them for centuries before the "first Thanksgiving" in 1621. While the history of the holiday is complicated, and well worth learning, this article will focus on the meal's centerpiece: a roasted turkey.
Where Most Thanksgiving Turkeys Come From
Americans have been eating turkey on Thanksgiving since, potentially, the first Thanksgiving. But while the tradition has stayed the same, the birds have not. Over the years, as with all factory-farmed animals, turkeys have been bred to grow faster and bigger. The turkeys that most of us eat on Thanksgiving don't look anything like the turkeys of yore.
"Over the last 60 years, turkeys have been aggressively bred to grow as large as possible in the shortest amount of time," says Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward, a sustainable agriculture organization. "As a result of these modern breeding techniques, hybrid birds suffer unnecessary and painful problems with skeletal development, heart and lung function, obesity, and early mortality."
Steven Roach, food safety program director at Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), which promotes humane treatment of farm animals, notes their living conditions aren't idyllic either. "Most commercial turkeys are raised indoors on floors made up of turkey droppings and sawdust," he says. "They're quite crowded, and they get a lot of skin and foot infections from being in contact with their own waste and other bacteria."
Why You Might Want to Consider a Different Kind of Turkey
If the previous paragraphs didn't faze you, here are a few more reasons to consider a different kind of bird.
- It's better for the environment: Industrial animal agriculture is one of the world's biggest polluters, according to deCoriolis, and is responsible for roughly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases.
- It slows the speed of antibiotic resistance: Among factory-farmed animals, turkeys are given the highest amount of antibiotics per pound, reports Roach. They're also the most likely to carry drug-resistant salmonella. On a more macro level, deCoriolis says 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to farmed animals, which he calls a "leading contributor to the emergence of drug-resistant superbugs."
Where to Buy Humane Turkeys
Ready to look for a more humane and sustainable turkey? First you'll have to familiarize yourself with the different types.
- Organic: Vegetarian feed (which is not the bird's natural diet), and some access to the outdoors.
- Free range: Some access to the outdoors.
- Pasture-raised: Raised mostly outside, and mostly on grass.
- Heritage: One of the older breeds of turkeys, which grow more slowly, and therefore have fewer health problems. They are almost always raised sustainably, according to Sustainable Table, and they taste better, too: "Whereas conventional supermarket turkeys can be tasteless and dry, heritage birds raised outdoors are juicy and succulent and taste the way a turkey is supposed to."
None of the preceding types of birds are given antibiotics. And while the first two are better than mass-market turkeys, "pasture-raised" and "heritage" are the best choices.
To find these types of turkeys, you should first look locally. Larissa McKenna, FACT's humane program farming director, recommends tools like Eat Wild, Local Harvest, or Eat Well Guide. You can also do a quick Google search or visit your local farmers market. Try to order as far in advance as possible. "Since these farms only produce a limited number of pasture-raised turkeys each year, supply can be limited and should be reserved ahead of time," says McKenna.
If you can't find a local farmer, check your grocery store's turkeys for one of the following humane food labels: Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World, Certified Humane, or Global Animal Partnership. (On the first two websites, you can search by zip code to find options near you.) Or, if you're at the store and wondering how a brand holds up, check BuyingPoultry, a Farm Forward database that rates producers as "avoid," "better choice" or "best choice."
For online ordering, try Heritage Foods, which deCoriolis calls the "most reliable place to buy highest-welfare heritage turkeys." At the time of research, sizes ranged from eight to 22 pounds, and cost $99 to $219. That's astronomically more expensive than your average factory-farmed turkey, which the USDA says is 82 cents per pound.
Are Humane Turkeys Worth the Cost?
Why are pasture-raised turkeys so expensive? It's not because humane farmers are price gouging you, says deCoriolis; it's because factory farmed meat is unnaturally cheap.
"The meat we find in grocery stores is only cheap because companies have externalized the real cost of raising animals on a mass scale," he explains. "If environmental pollution, the impacts on small farmers, and the impact on human health were factored into the cost of meat, it would be much more expensive."
Both he and Roach think that, especially since you're only buying a turkey once or twice a year, it's worth paying the extra money. "When you think about eating local, turkey is the most local in terms of a species," says Roach. "It's native to here. So when we think about celebrating the place we're at, which is what Thanksgiving is about, it's important to eat turkey. But you want to find one that's been treated well before buying."
"Eating turkey is something you do for a celebration," he adds. "It's worth splurging."
Where are you getting your turkey this year?