Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to Buy a Delicious and Ecologically Sustainable Turkey

Photo: Brandon Siedel/ Shutterstock
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, the time has come for many Americans to start searching for the perfect bird.  If it's your turn to cook this year, and you want to make sure you can compete with Aunt Janice the chef and Uncle John who's been cooking turkeys for 30 years, consider choosing a sustainably raised turkey from a farm near you.  You'll be boosting your local economy, helping the environment, and your turkey will taste better than its factory farm-bred cousins.  The Mother Nature Network lists a few tips on getting a bird that will wow your guests and promote sustainable healthy living:

If you're part of the majority of Americans who don't shoot their own turkey, be aware of where the bird you're buying comes from.  If you get your poultry from a farm, farmer's market, or CSA, talk to the farmer and find out how the bird was raised.  If you're buying from a grocery store, talk to the butcher or store manager, or carefully read the labels on the bird's packaging.  Some labels are more reliable than others, so make sure you're informed.  For instance, a label claiming a bird was "free range" realistically means almost nothing since an animal that's only been allowed outside for five minutes a day can be considered free range, and even that rule is not enforced by any organization other than the manufacturer.  A great resource to check the reliability of labels for all kinds of foods can be found here.

If you are looking for superior flavor, buy either a heritage, organic, or sustainably produced turkey. Sustainable agriculture isn't just good for the environment and for livestock; it's also good for your taste buds.  Ninety-nine percent of all turkeys raised in the United States are Broadbreasted White, a variety that has been bread to have abnormally large amounts of breast meat.  This means that the birds can't walk or breed properly, and, according to the UN, without artificial insemination by humans the entire species would go extinct within one generation.  Raised in confinement in extremely crowded conditions, they are fed a steady diet of grain and antibiotics rather than the grubs, bugs and grasses they should eat and could eat if they were allowed outdoors.  It's no wonder that in blind taste tests, factory-farmed Broadbreasted White turkey proved to be inferior in flavor to sustainably produced, organic, and heritage breeds of turkey, but conventional wisdom still dictates the false notion that Broadbreasted White turkeys raised on large factory farms taste the best.  Heritage turkeys are breeds that were around before Broadbreasted White existed, and many of them originated in America.  Organic birds are raised without growth enhancers or antibiotics, and eat organic feed.  Sustainable is a term that's a bit harder to pin down, but basically refers to farmers who treat their land, animals, and workers with respect, so that the farm will remain sustainable for generations to come, hence the name.  Although sustainable has no legal regulations like Certified Organic, sustainable farms often exceed USDA Organic guidelines.

In the end, the key is to buy local.  The best way to know for sure how your turkey was raised is to buy it from a local source, where you can literally see the conditions that the birds are living in.  Buying local is good for your regional economy and it's easier than you think.  Local Harvest and the Eat Well Guide are both great resources to search for a farm near you.

Happy Hunting!

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