Tips For Buying A Healthier Holiday Turkey

By Lynne Curry – (Zester Daily)-Before deciding whether to brine, deep-fry or spatchcock the Thanksgiving turkey, more Americans than ever are puzzling over a pressing ethical question: “Which type of bird should I buy?”

The majority of the estimated 68 million turkeys sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas come from giant industrial producers like Butterball and Jennie-O. But consumers’ growing preference for meats that meet better standards for animal welfare, along with better nutritional and environmental impacts, is shifting the market toward niche alternatives. Though national statistics are scant, data from industry and retail groups show sales of non-GMO, organic, free-range and heritage turkeys (see definitions in sidebar) growing sharply. With more options in supermarkets and online, choosing a bird for the holiday table is weightier than ever.

Here’s a rundown of the top considerations for choosing a holiday turkey that’s palatable in more ways than one.

Hormones and antibiotics in turkeys

Federal law bans the use of hormones in poultry products. So don’t be fooled by a label claiming “no added hormones.” When a company touts the fact that it is merely complying with legal regulations, consider it a red flag for misleading practices, advises the Animal Welfare Institute.

While the chicken industry, led by Purdue, is stepping back from the routine use of antibiotics, most large turkey producers still administer them in the feed to prevent disease, according to Food Safety News. Bear in mind that all meat must be free of antibiotic residues before sale (beware the label reading “antibiotic-free” — another meaningless label). Still, there is still good reason for caution. Several studies, including this 2015 Consumer Reports study, have found turkey to have the highest incidence of superbugs — drug-resistant bacteria — of any meat. It advised consumers to buy organic turkey or products labeled “no antibiotics administered.”

Fast-growing hybrids and heritage breeds

The modern-day turkey is a broad-breasted, white-feathered bird that grows twice as fast as its native ancestors. It cannot mate, fly or engage in any other natural turkey behaviors. What it can do — thanks to the genetic selection that suits the industrialized food-production system’s demand for high efficiency and food safety at the lowest cost per unit — is eat a lot. Selected for hypothyroidism, conventional turkeys have a metabolic rate that’s 300 times faster than that of heritage turkeys, according to breeder Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. An insatiable hunger ensures that hens gain 26 pounds and toms 40 pounds in just 12 weeks — a rate double that of Reese’s heritage birds.

Modern genetics has succeeded in creating the ample white breast meat many people love, but it has “deformed” the bird’s natural anatomy. With a shortened breast bone, the muscle grows broader, which in turn affects the hip-bone and leg attachments, causing turkeys to wobble instead of walk, according to Reese. The industrial turkey suffers from a range of health problems — from joint pain to diabetes to congestive heart failure — that alarm animal-welfare advocates.

The push toward healthier turkeys is also driving the heritage market, the best option for animal welfare. Between 1997, when the first turkey census was conducted by the Livestock Conservancy, and 2015, the number of breeding heritage turkeys increased 90 percent. Sales of Reese’s turkeys — with less white and more dark meat — through Heritage Foods USA have doubled every year over the past four years, according to owner Patrick Martins. Denver-based Natural Grocers, with 126 stores in 19 states, sells out of Mary’s heritage turkeys every year.

Turkey raised on pasture

Mary’s turkeys live in open pens on pasture with access to shelter and shade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mary's Turkey Farm
Mary’s turkeys live in open pens on pasture with access to shelter and shade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mary’s Turkey Farm

Mary’s is a poultry farm established by the Pitman family in 1954 in Fresno, California. Hailed as a model of sustainable production, it raises three types of turkey — non-GMO, organic and heritage (see definitions in sidebar) — all of which are GAP-certified for level 3 and above, verifying a high standard of animal care that includes genuinely free-range conditions.

“In a lot of ways, we’re circling back to the way we did it in the ’50s and ’60s,” said third-generation farmer David Pitman. “The breeds were slower-growing. There weren’t antibiotics, there wasn’t GMO — the birds were organic.”

Mary’s processes 8,000 turkeys a day to meet the Thanksgiving demand while striving to balance customer expectations with cost. At Natural Grocers, Mary’s non-GMO free-range turkey costs $2.69 per pound, the organic free-range bird $3.99 per pound and the heritage breed $6.99 per pound.

Is a healthier turkey worth the price? Heritage Foods USA’s Martins asserts that spending more per person, especially on a special occasion, is key to both humane treatment and better-quality meat. “The huge change is that people are starting to ask the question ‘Where is this meat from?’ the same way they ask about heirloom seeds and vegetables,” he said.

“The more questions that are asked, the better.”

Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express

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