By Brian Cummings
So what’s going to be on your table on Thanksgiving? If you’re not planning on a fully catered dinner, you have several options. (But for some, you better move fast.)
Going with a conventional supermarket turkey?
You’ll probably pay anywhere from nothing (if you buy enough other groceries) to $1.29 a pound for a turkey that’s one of the 250 million or so that are raised conventionally each year. And you’ll get what you pay for.
Conventionally raised turkeys, which are invariably Broad Breasted Whites, spend their entire lives in a shed with upwards of 10,000 other turkeys on a floor of sawdust and straw for soaking up bird waste; with lighting kept low to reduce aggressive behavior; and sometime with their beaks cut so they don’t peck each other. And they are given antibiotics to control the infections caused by close confinement.
They’ve been called the “Wonder Bread” of turkeys for their lack of flavor and texture. In fact, most producers now sell “basted” turkeys which are injected with a salty brine to help boost the flavor.
But you don’t have to settle for a supermarket bird. Over the past decade or so, alternatives to the factory raised turkey have emerged, and even the Broad Breasted White is being given a flavor boost by being put out to pasture to peck for some of its food.
The real change came from the rebirth of Heritage breeds, the ancestors of the Broad Breasted Whites. These breeds were in danger of slipping into extinction as recently as the 1990s when efforts by organizations like Slow Food and the Heritage Turkey Foundation brought them back to the table, as it were. There are a whole slew of Heritage breeds that are making a comeback, but two of the more popular ones are the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red, which are “prized for their rich flavor” according to the Heritage Turkey Foundation.
“Raising Heritage Breeds is more costly and time consuming than raising White Breasted Toms. While supermarket turkeys grow to an average of 32 pounds over 18 weeks, Heritage birds take anywhere from 24-30 (weeks) to reach their market weight. But those who have tasted Heritage Breeds say the cost-and the wait-are well worth it,” the foundation says on its website.
Once you’ve decided on something a little more flavorful to grace your table, things can still get confusing. You can find “All Natural” turkeys, organic turkeys, organic free-range turkeys, heritage turkeys, organic heritage turkeys, organic heritage free-range turkeys or all of the above with the word “pastured.”
And “pastured” is the key word if you want the best. (And there’s even a caveat here, but we’ll get to that later.)
Let’s look at the term “All Natural” first. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a product with no artificial ingredients, no added color and only “minimally processed” can use the term natural. The label needs to explain why the product is making the claim. Many turkeys raised conventionally can make this claim.
As for “organic,” that only guarantees that the turkey has met USDA Organic Certification standards, which include an organic diet, surroundings that are pesticide and herbicide free and no antibiotics. An organic bird could have been raised indoors in a shed that’s just a bit more comfortable than its conventional cousins.
“Free-range” is one of the more misleading terms. It conjures up visions of turkeys wandering at will through green pastures, but here is how the USDA describes free range in its glossary: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
The outside could consist of bare dirt or concrete and “access” could mean a small door at the end of a big shed. There’s no guarantee that the turkey actually decided to leave his thousands of friends in the coop and venture outside.
What you want is a “pastured” turkey – either a pasture-raised Broad Breasted White, if you don’t want to stray too far from familiar tastes, or a pasture-raised Heritage breed, if you’d like something more flavorful with more dark meat. If it’s organic (which most are) so much the better. Also look for birds that have been fed GMO-free (genetically modified organisms) feed and, soy-free feed. But the pasture-raising is what gives the birds their flavor, because that means they’ve spent their lives pecking away outside.
The real test for pasture-raised birds is whether they are being raised with continuous access to green grass. Don’t key off of one phrase like pasture raised while being totally unaware of the quality compromises that are being made (by a producer) in the production model to hit the price points and quantities necessary to be nationally distributed.
In the final analysis to really know what you are eating, you have to know where it is produced, know the people that produce it, and know how it is produced. That is the essence of local food and should be the mantra of the local and sustainable food movement.
So there you have it.
The gold standard for Thanksgiving then is a locally raised, organic, pastured Heritage breed turkey that has been fed with non-GMO and soy free feed.
While they may take some extra effort to find, you can start by looking online at LocalHarvest.org where you can search by zip code for farms that raise Heritage turkeys. Or ask your local farmers’ market manager.