Industrial turkeys vs. traditional turkeys

Like pigs and chickens, turkeys in industrial operations are raised in densely packed metal buildings and never go outdoors. They spend their lives in increasingly crowded conditions as they grow larger. Feeding and watering are automated, so many operations function with little involvement of human beings. The stress and boredom of such a bleak existence mean that turkeys in industrial facilities frequently peck and cannibalize each other. To address this, industrial operations routinely cut off the front half of turkeys' beaks, causing intense, chronic pain. The ends of their toes are likewise snipped off. The extreme crowding also necessitates continually dosing the turkeys with antibiotics and other drugs to prevent diseases that result from stress and overcrowding. Typical facilities hold 10,000 birds per building, generating enormous quantities of manure and, correspondingly, notoriously foul stenches, fly plagues, and water pollution problems.

Then there are the birds themselves. It's often noted around Thanksgiving that Benjamin Franklin considered the turkey more suitable than the bald eagle to be our national symbol. The turkey, Franklin said, "is a much more respectable bird," admiringly calling it "a true original native of America" and a "bird of courage." However, the animal Franklin so admired bears little resemblance to the modern, industrial form of the bird. As is by now familiar to most people, turkeys at the massive facilities that today supply most grocery stores and restaurants are all of a single breed, the Broad Breasted White. The birds have little genetic variation, making them uniquely susceptible to a host of diseases; worse still, the animal has been grossly distorted by human-controlled selective breeding to have huge breasts, so huge that as the bird matures it has difficulty walking or even standing upright.

Meat from industrial turkey operations is also inferior. The birds' bland diet and lifestyle tends to produce dry, flaccid, and flavorless meat. For this reason, many commercial turkeys are injected with saline solutions. This is also the reason why so many recipes nowadays call for brining the turkey. A good piece of meat does not need brining.

Fortunately, a growing number of farms in the United States are offering pasture-raised heritage turkeys. Among popular heritage breeds are the Standard Bronze, the White Holland, the Spanish Black, the Bourbon Red, and the Naragansett. These animals are beautiful, healthy, robust creatures that produce flavorful, succulent meat. As Kansas heritage turkey farmer Frank Reese told me about his turkeys: "My birds can not only walk - they can run. And they can fly too!"

In 2008, we began raising heritage turkeys on our ranch too. As we described in a previous post , we drove all the way to Frank Reese's farm in Lindsborg, Kansas to get the right breeding stock. Just as Frank promised, we've been impressed with the heartiness, intelligence and stunning beauty of the turkey as it is meant to be. We now have a full appreciation for the difference between the industrial and the real turkey.

For the consumer who wants to avoid industrially produced turkeys and is able to pay more for one that's both delicious and healthful, read on for some guidance. Yes, it may be too late to get your hands on a real heritage turkey for this Thanksgiving. But there's still time to get one for Christmas or New Year's, and these can all provide doubtless pleasant Thanksgiving thoughts for tabletime talk.

NEXT : General guidelines for buying your turkey

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General advice :

1.) Be prepared to pay more . Instead of just looking at price tags, think in terms of value . Remember that industrially produced turkeys are made cheaper through the use of antibiotics and other feed ingredients you probably don't want in your food chain. The really cheap turkeys you see in grocery stores are often so-called "loss leaders." Bargain turkeys are often frozen leftovers from the previous Thanksgiving.

Keep in mind, too, that our government heavily subsidizes industrial agriculture, making its products artificially cheap. We should all be asking our elected officials why our government isn't supporting farming that produces food that's healthful for humans, environmentally benign, and respectful to animals. Over the long term, that's the change we need to advocate for.

2.) Plan on eating less . A typical American eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year and our consumption continues to rise. On top of that, over the twentieth century, average cheese consumption went from about three pounds annually to around 30 pounds, much of which is processed cheese in Big Macs and on pizzas. (And we wonder why we have an obesity epidemic). Turkey eating has seen a similar spike: In 1909 Americans ate less than one pound of turkey meat annually; by 2005, this had risen to 13 pounds per year. Meat and dairy products from traditional farms, especially turkeys, currently cost more than factory farm products. Consider adopting this as your new slogan: Eat less meat. Eat better meat . For the next six weeks, change that to: Eat less turkey. Eat better turkey .

3.) Know your labels (and their shortcomings) . Food labels are helpful but imperfect. Knowing what they mean (and do not mean) is important. The term "free range," for example, has one connotation with eggs and another with poultry meat. A "free range turkey" is not always much better than your average grocery store bird. (More on labels next week).

4.) Seek a turkey from a known source . The best way to ensure you're getting a non-industrial turkey is to buy from a source that will tell you and show you how the animals are raised, what they were fed, and from what farm or farms the turkey actually came.

5.) Ask questions, even if it sometimes seems futile . There's real power in simply asking: "Where is this turkey from? How was it raised?" If the person you ask doesn't know the answer, suggest (in a friendly way, of course) he or she finds out. If no one can give you an answer, consider seeking another source. I believe the simple act of asking this question - if enough people begin to do it - has the potential to spark a massive change in our food system.

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Next week: How to where look and what to look for when buying a turkey--and how to cook it once you've bought it.