How to Pick Your Thanksgiving Turkey

turkey dinner on table with plates
November 23, 2020
Let’s talk turkey.
Around 46 million turkeys are eaten every Thanksgiving in the United States, so it’s important to make an informed decision when purchasing about where and how your turkey is raised. Furthermore, in order to reduce the food waste created by Thanksgiving, remember this rule: You’ll need approximately one pound of bone-in turkey per person.
Here are four Tiers of Turkey:

Bottom Tier: Self-Basting, Basted, or Injected Turkeys

These turkeys are typically inexpensive and readily available at the supermarket; however, they are factory farmed and injected with saline solution and vegetable oils. They may also contain emulsifiers and artificial flavors. The turkeys spend their brief lives cooped up, without access to fields for grazing, and are generally fed low-quality, medicated feed. They are typically buttery and have a spongy texture. They may be previously frozen or not.
Shockingly, 2% of livestock farms now raise around 40% of the animals in the US. This means that they are typically raised in such close quarters to each other that as they grow, they barely have room to move—as many as 25,000 turkeys can be on one farm. They often live very short lives in inhumane conditions: although turkeys in the wild may have a lifespan of 9-12 years, turkeys in factory farms are generally slaughtered any time between 9 and 24 weeks. At this time, their bones are often too weak to support their weight due to their lack of exercise, so they are barely able to walk at all. Industrial factory farmed turkeys make up around 85-90% of the turkeys eaten in the United States.

Mid-tier: Free Range or Free-Roaming Turkeys

These are a more humane option than factory-farmed turkeys because free range turkeys have access to the outdoors for at least 51% of their lives. The label “free range” simply means that the turkeys must at least have a door in the farm that leads outside, so it isn’t perfect.
It is better if the turkey is labeled “pastured” because it means that they are raised on open fields. Pastured turkeys are generally raised on pesticide-free pastures, rather than grain-fed like factory-farmed turkeys, and are, therefore, much better for the environment. They are generally not supplemented with antibiotics, harsh chemicals, or hormones. They are treated far more humanely and with far more respect than factory farmed turkeys. This takes extra time and care which results in a higher price tag; however, people also claim they taste better because, depending on how much exercise the turkey gets throughout its life, it may be leaner.

Top Tier: Locally Farmed Turkeys

Buying a turkey locally is the most expensive option, but it is also the best way to ensure that you know what you’re eating—it allows you to discuss farming practices, feeding programs, and processing programs with the farmers in order to know exactly what goes into the turkey you are consuming. Shopping locally, as compared to shopping at chain stores, also keeps four times the money in your local economy.
Some great resources for finding local farms, farmers markets, and farm stands are: Local Harvest, eatWILD, and Eat Well Guide. Furthermore, FoodPrint is a great resource for further learning on eating and shopping sustainably this Thanksgiving.

Most sustainable: Vegetarian Substitute

Animal protein has a higher carbon footprint than nearly all vegetarian options: Turkeys rank fifth highest  after lamb, beef, cheese, and pork.  The best way to ensure that you are eating “turkey” sustainably is by eating a plant-based alternative. For those ready to part with tradition, consider a hearty vegetarian main course such as stuffed squash, marinated tofu, or lentil loaf. Also, check out some plant-based Thanksgiving sides to accompany the main dish. Just remember not to rely too heavily on meat substitutes like these, as they tend to be highly processed, which diminishes their nutritional value.