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Turkey Talk: What to Buy, and Where

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page and our Agriculture and Climate Resource Center page.

Tired of the dry, flavorless supermarket turkey on your table each Thanksgiving? Why not try a pastured/heritage breed turkey this year?

Fortunately for consumers, there are more varieties and sources of high quality turkey than ever, including mail order, farmers markets, food co-ops and natural food stores, independent butchers, and direct from the farm.

Of course a free-range, heritage, organic or pastured turkey is going to cost more than the supermarket bird, raised in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), or factory farm, and fed a steady diet of antibiotics and GMO corn and soy.

But after the sticker shock wears off, most consumers agree the taste, texture and added nutrition are worth it. And if you use the whole turkey, including making broth from the bones, it’s a good dollar value, too.

For the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey experience, Organic Consumers Association recommends serving a pastured heritage breed bird whenever possible. If that’s not an option, we recommend a pastured organic turkey. Our third choice is a pastured (but not organic) turkey, followed by our fourth choice, an organic (but not necessarily pastured) turkey.

What labels do you want to be wary of when shopping for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey? “Free range,” “natural” and “all natural.” In order to label a turkey “free range,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires only that the grower demonstrate that the bird was allowed access to the outdoors. The term can legally be used to describe factory farmed animals not kept in cages, but with no access to grass, or access to a concrete pad that not all the turkeys could squeeze onto. It also applies, of course, to heritage breed turkeys, which in fact are legitimately “free range.” But unless the turkey is also labeled “heritage breed” or “pastured,” “free range” can be misleading.

As for “natural,“ “all natural,” or “naturally raised,” those labels, on their own, are meaningless as neither the USDA nor the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have provided legal definitions for those terms. Some chemical and hormone-free producers use the “all-natural” label, but Butterball and Jennie-O turkeys are also marketed as “all-natural.” Need we say more?

Heritage breed turkeys: OCA’s first choice

Heritage breeds, developed over hundreds of years, almost became extinct in the U.S.  Prized for their beautiful plumage, fine flavor, high percentage of meat yielded and their hardiness in surviving outdoors, heritage breeds were almost wiped out  due to the popularity of the industrial broad-breasted white variety, a fast- maturing bird with much more white meat. These white turkeys became the industry norm in the 1960s and now comprise more than 99 percent of the turkey market.

Thankfully, though, heritage breed turkeys are making a comeback.

To be labeled a heritage breed, the variety must be one of the following: Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later added to the standard were the Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White.

Heritage breeds are smaller and much more naturally proportioned, with a much smaller breast and larger thighs. They are by definition pasture raised, and production practices go way beyond the bird’s diet.

According to the Livestock Conservancy, heritage breed turkeys must meet all of the following criteria:

1.     Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70 percent -80 percent. This means that turkeys marketed as “heritage” must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.

2.     Long productive outdoor lifespan: Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. The Heritage Turkey must also have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.

3.     Slow growth rate: Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.”
Broad-breasted white supermarket turkeys (more than 99 percent of the turkeys sold in the U.S.) mature in14-16 weeks, while Heritage birds take roughly twice as long to reach their market weight. That’s one reason they cost more.  

They also require extra space. Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows recommends: “A basic rule of thumb is 10 acres for every 200 turkeys. This gives enough grass to make a daily rotation of about a quarter acre, while ensuring the field is given ample time to recover.”

Where can you find a heritage breed turkey? You can start by searching the Local Harvest directory, which lists over 30,000 family farms and farmers markets, along with restaurants and grocery stores that feature local food, or this site.
As with any consumer purchase, beware of imposters and false claims. The Local Harvest directory, for instance, includes a wide variety of grower claims, including “free range,” “pastured” and “free roam pastured.” Be sure to find out what production practices each claim is based on.

Pastured and organic turkeys: OCA’s second choice

A pastured, organic turkey is certified organic and was raised naturally on pasture.

Miller’s Farm, a private buying club in Florida, provides a good description of the benefits of organic, pastured turkeys:

“Pastured Turkey is a great source of lean meat protein and is very rich in B vitamins and zinc, as well as a great source of tryptophan (a brain nutrient known for it's anti-anxiety effect). What many consumers don’t realize is that only grassfed and pastured turkeys and chickens are rich in tryptophan. Corn and grain-fed animals do not contain the same levels of healthy amino acids and nutrients. They do contain a higher ratio of inflammatory fats than pastured turkeys and chickens.”

A good functional definition of pastured poultry is posted on Tropical Traditions website:

“Because of the loose definition of ‘free range,’ we prefer to use the term ‘pastured poultry. This would include those growers using the ‘Salatin type’ of moveable pens, or other types such as ‘day range.’

“So our definition would be: ‘Birds are kept outside (as the season and daylight hours permit), utilizing a movable or stationary house for shelter, and they have constant access to fresh-growing palatable vegetation.’"

GrassFed Traditions, a certified organic pastured turkey grower in Wisconsin uses cocofeed (coconut pulp and other natural nutrients). In tropical cultures, coconut has been a traditional ingredient in poultry feed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Coconut pulp is high in fiber and protein, and is still a common animal feed component today.

Sources for organic, pastured turkeys include Local Harvest; Good Earth Farms; GrassFed Traditions; and KOL Amish Valley Kosher Turkey

Pastured turkeys: OCA’s Third Choice

If you can’t find an organic, pastured turkey, go with just pastured—but be sure to ask if the turkey was actually raised outdoors, on pasture. As already noted, “free range” doesn’t necessarily mean “raised outdoors for all or most of its life.”

According to the World’s Healthiest Foods website:

“When provided with natural pasture, turkeys will spend extensive time foraging. They are very diverse in their food selection! Pasture-raised turkey enjoy eating acorns, beechnuts, pine seeds, grasses, grass seeds, sedges, farbs, tubers, bulbs, crabgrass, wild berries, alfalfa, clovers, beetles, grasshoppers, and leafhoppers. This very broad natural diet is one of the reasons that we recommend pasture-raised turkey.”

One good directory of U.S. and Canadian pastured (but not necessarily organic) turkeys is Eat Wild. Others include: Grow and Behold Pastured Turkey (organic and non-organic); Slanker’s Grass-Fed Meats; and Rainbow Ranch Farms (organic and non-organic).

Organic turkeys: OCA’s fourth highest rating

Organic turkeys are clearly superior to their factory-farmed counterparts, but contrary to what many consumers would believe, organic is often not the best choice.

Turkeys marketed as organic are required to be raised for their entire lives on organic feed. They are typically fed a 60-percent corn meal, 35-percent soybean meal and 5- percent nutritional supplement mix, the same mix fed to birds in factory farms. This makes them less healthy, and less nutritious, than turkeys that eat a natural diet of insects, bugs, grubs, grass and other natural foods—even if that feed is organic.

But here’s the thing—organic turkeys aren’t always fed organic feed. Turns out the USDA allows organic poultry growers to feed regular non-organic grain when organic grain is unavailable, or when the cost exceeds more than twice that of non-organic grain.

As for the USDA’s National Organic Program rule that says organic turkeys must have access to the outdoors, that rule is loosely interpreted and rarely enforced. In fact, a certified organic turkey many have limited, or in some cases, no access to sun or grass. And again, they aren’t eating a natural diet like the one eaten by a turkey that is actually raised outside, on pasture.

Where to find an organic turkey? Try Organic Prairie. Whole Foods also sells organic turkeys, in addition to classic, heritage, heirloom and kosher turkeys, all rated according to a five-step animal welfare system.

You can also find organic turkeys here.

Patrick Kerrigan is retail education coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.