Don’t Fence Me In - Go with a Free-range Gobbler
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For most Americans, memories of Thanksgiving focus on succulent, brown, juicy birds and a week of turkey sandwiches and cranberry sauce leftovers. While these images are typically guilt-free, the truth is that most turkeys come from industrial farms, where producers are more concerned with quantity than quality, raising the fowl under often foul conditions.
Tottering under the weight of immense breasts and packed into huge warehouses, industrially raised turkeys are kept tightly confined, with as many as 10,000 to a room, and fed additives and antibiotics, reports Ian Duncan, a professor of ethology in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph, in Ontario. “To some extent,” remarks Duncan, “we’ve created a monster.”
The cramped conditions often lead to turkeys infected with salmonella, campylobacter and other bacteria that may persist even when treated by antibiotics. Common practices include mixing antibiotics into rations to stave off such diseases, as well as adding animal fat to feed to bulk up the birds.
The Free-range Choice
The good news is that choices for naturally raised turkeys are on the rise, so careful shoppers can purchase their holiday entree with an easier conscience. Free-range turkeys that are allowed access to the outdoors and may live a significant portion of their lives at pasture can be purchased at natural products stores or ordered from a free-range farm. Yet, experts still caution us not to be fooled by just any free-range label—that alone doesn’t guarantee we are getting a high-quality bird that’s been raised naturally, without the use of antibiotics or additives.
Although free-range turkeys live in conditions closer to their natural habitats and are less likely to carry disease, the classification guidelines are loose. According to Margaret Riek, spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “To have the label ‘free-range,’ poultry producers must provide a brief description of the birds’ housing conditions. This written description is reviewed to ensure the birds have continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for more than 51 percent of their lives, i.e., through their normal growing cycle. During the winter months in a northern climate, birds are not [considered] free-range if they stay in coops all winter.” She further notes that producer testimonials must state how the birds are raised in a northern climate in winter in order to conform to the meaning of the term “free-range” during the winter months.
Free range doesn’t mean organic, so even when accurately applied, the free-range label doesn’t ensure that turkeys have been raised on pesticide-free feed or without antibiotics, hormones or additives. Currently, the USDA is permitting certain meat and poultry products—including turkey—to be labeled Certified Organic by the name of the certifying entity. But again, labeling can be confusing, because some producers freely use the terms “organic” or “natural” without certification to back them up. Consumers must carefully check for Certified Organic labels and/or contact the producers directly to determine the conditions under which the birds were raised.
Mary Pitman, of Mary’s Free-Range Turkeys, in Fresno, California, emphasizes the importance of prudent label reading. “Consumers can really be fooled,” she counsels. “Some farms can qualify for free-range, but they raise [turkeys] in the same conditions as industrial farms.
“Here, we have four times more space than industrial farms. We provide 8 to 12 feet per turkey. Some people think that just because turkeys go in and out of pens, they’re free range. If they’re truly [naturally raised], their feed doesn’t have any drugs or hormones or antibiotics in it and they have the freedom to roam.”
Sleuthing a Turkey’s History
If we have any questions about the production or treatment of a certain brand of turkey, it’s best to call the company. Many turkey farms have toll-free information lines; the best of these can vouch for the fact that their turkeys have been raised with ample space—a minimum of four square feet per turkey when they are inside—in natural, primarily outdoor settings, and have not been fed or injected with preservatives or additives.
Getting to know a bird’s biography may seem like just another chore on a long list of Thanksgiving preparations, but knowing that we’re feeding our family safely and humanely is a satisfying payoff. Best of all, buying a natural bird has palate-pleasing benefits: It’s as good to our taste buds as it is for our bodies, and that’s something we can all be thankful for.
Jordana Gerson writes about travel, the outdoors and holistic living.