Before giving thanks, get to know your turkey

November 21, 2007

The average American eats 14 pounds of turkey each year, with more consumed at Thanksgiving than at Christmas and Easter combined. But unlike the birds on the tables of our pioneers, nearly all the turkeys Americans will dine on this weekend come from large-scale industrial operations.

“Turkeys have been carefully bred to become the efficient meat producers they are today. In 1986, a turkey weighed an average of 20.0 pounds. This average has increased to 28.2 pounds per bird in 2006. The increase in bird weight reflects an efficiency gain for growers of about 41 percent. Higher average per bird weight and technological operation practices have led to a significant increase in turkeys raised per year since 1929, growing from around 18 million turkeys raised in 1929 to 272 million turkeys raised in 2007. Total pounds of turkey produced grew from 4.15 billion pounds in 1986 to 7.42 billion pounds in 2006. U.S. value of production for turkeys increased from 1.95 billion dollars in 1986 to 3.55 billion dollars in 2006, an 82 percent increase over the time period.” Source: USDA

Factory-farm turkeys are bred to be Pamela Anderson top-heavy (white meat is where the money is). They cannot fly – they can’t even procreate (industrial turkeys today are all the product of artificial insemination). So which is better? Organic? Free-range? Local? In terms of animal cruelty and environmental impact, which bird is the most guilt-free?

20: Number of years turkeys can live in the wild.

2: Number of years factory-farm turkeys typically survive. Bred to grow fast, they sometimes die before slaughter, usually from organ failure. (According to one industry publication, modern turkeys grow so quickly that if a seven-pound human baby grew at the same rate, the infant would weigh 1,500 pounds at just 18 weeks of age.)

2: Number of square feet required for a “free-range” or “free-run” turkey. This label is not regulated, so birds can wind up in conditions similar to those on industrial-scale farms.

3: The minimum number of years that land must be pesticide-free to grow the crops that feed certified organic turkeys. The more stringent certified organic label requires third-party verification and inspection by an accredited body.

The bottom line: Scrutinize labels such as “natural,” “free-range” and “antibiotic-free” when selecting your holiday bird. For instance, “antibiotic-free” may only mean for a certain time if you’re looking for a non-medicated bird, opt for certified organic, which means the use of antibiotics, pesticides and genetically modified feed is prohibited. Many small farms are also essentially organic, but don’t always get certified and therefore cannot label their products as such. Buying locally from a farm, market or specialty food store you trust is often the best environmental choice. Not only are you supporting small-scale agriculture, you are encouraging biodiversity over standardization, and cutting down on the fossil fuels needed to ship food across the country – something for which we can all give thanks.

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