The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Agriculture  / Tips For Buying A Healthier Holiday Turkey

Tips For Buying A Healthier Holiday Turkey

The heritage turkeys at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch live much like their wild ancestors on the Kansas prairie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jim Turner, Turner Photography, Lindsborg, KS

The heritage turkeys at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch live much like their wild ancestors on the Kansas prairie. Credit: Copyright 2017 Jim Turner, Turner Photography, Lindsborg, KS

Before deciding whether to brine, deep-fry or spatchcock the Thanksgiving turkey, more Americans than ever are puzzling over a pressing ethical question: “Which type of bird should I buy?”

The majority of the estimated 68 million turkeys sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas come from giant industrial producers like Butterball and Jennie-O. But consumers’ growing preference for meats that meet better standards for animal welfare, along with better nutritional and environmental impacts, is shifting the market toward niche alternatives. Though national statistics are scant, data from industry and retail groups show sales of non-GMO, organic, free-range and heritage turkeys (see definitions in sidebar) growing sharply. With more options in supermarkets and online, choosing a bird for the holiday table is weightier than ever.

Here’s a rundown of the top considerations for choosing a holiday turkey that’s palatable in more ways than one.

Hormones and antibiotics in turkeys

Federal law bans the use of hormones in poultry products. So don’t be fooled by a label claiming “no added hormones.” When a company touts the fact that it is merely complying with legal regulations, consider it a red flag for misleading practices, advises the Animal Welfare Institute.

While the chicken industry, led by Purdue, is stepping back from the routine use of antibiotics, most large turkey producers still administer them in the feed to prevent disease, according to Food Safety News. Bear in mind that all meat must be free of antibiotic residues before sale (beware the label reading “antibiotic-free” — another meaningless label). Still, there is still good reason for caution. Several studies, including this 2015 Consumer Reports study, have found turkey to have the highest incidence of superbugs — drug-resistant bacteria — of any meat. It advised consumers to buy organic turkey or products labeled “no antibiotics administered.”

Fast-growing hybrids and heritage breeds

Mary’s free-range turkeys live in open pens on pasture with access to shelter and shade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mary's Turkey Farm

Mary’s free-range turkeys live in open pens on pasture with access to shelter and shade. Credit: Copyright 2017 Mary’s Turkey Farm

The modern-day turkey is a broad-breasted, white-feathered bird that grows twice as fast as its native ancestors. It cannot mate, fly or engage in any other natural turkey behaviors. What it can do — thanks to the genetic selection that suits the industrialized food-production system’s demand for high efficiency and food safety at the lowest cost per unit — is eat a lot. Selected for hypothyroidism, conventional turkeys have a metabolic rate that’s 300 times faster than that of heritage turkeys, according to breeder Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. An insatiable hunger ensures that hens gain 26 pounds and toms 40 pounds in just 12 weeks — a rate double that of Reese’s heritage birds.

Modern genetics has succeeded in creating the ample white breast meat many people love, but it has “deformed” the bird’s natural anatomy. With a shortened breast bone, the muscle grows broader, which in turn affects the hip-bone and leg attachments, causing turkeys to wobble instead of walk, according to Reese. The industrial turkey suffers from a range of health problems — from joint pain to diabetes to congestive heart failure — that alarm animal-welfare advocates.

Niche Turkey Options For Conscious Consumers

Non-GMO turkey is fed a mixture of Non-GMO Project Verified corn and soy along with vitamins and minerals. This designation does not eliminate pesticides or stipulate higher animal welfare.

Organic turkey is free of GMOs, antibiotics and synthetic pesticides and is raised according to strict certified-organic standards mandated by the USDA and verified by independent audit. Organically raised turkeys must have year-round access to the outdoors, but they can legally be confined to barns with enclosed porches, so they are not necessarily pasture-raised or free-range.

Pasture-raised turkey is an unverified term for any turkey with access to outdoor habitat, also called free-range, free-ranging or free-roaming. The USDA does not define a minimum amount of time or outdoors conditions; therefore, this claim should be validated by a third-party certifier.

Local turkey is raised within a certain market region. There is no regulation for feed or animal welfare, although local turkeys are generally raised without antibiotics on small farms with access to pasture. They may be either fast-growing, slower-growing hybrids or heritage breeds.

Heritage turkey comprises eight historic breeds listed by the Livestock Conservancy and other naturally mating varieties. Breeds like Bronze, Narragansett and Bourbon grow at half the rate of their modern counterparts; are raised outdoors with sufficient space and natural enhancements to express their natural behaviors; and represent the highest standard for animal welfare.

Non-meat alternatives are any number of commercial or homemade turkey substitutes made from soy, seitan, grains and/or vegetables. Animal-welfare activists argue that they are the most ethical, humane and sustainable choice.

The push toward healthier turkeys is also driving the heritage market, the best option for animal welfare. Between 1997, when the first turkey census was conducted by the Livestock Conservancy, and 2015, the number of breeding heritage turkeys increased 90 percent. Sales of Reese’s turkeys — with less white and more dark meat — through Heritage Foods USA have doubled every year over the past four years, according to owner Patrick Martins. Denver-based Natural Grocers, with 126 stores in 19 states, sells out of Mary’s heritage turkeys every year.

Turkey raised on pasture

Mary’s is a poultry farm established by the Pitman family in 1954 in Fresno, California. Hailed as a model of sustainable production, it raises three types of turkey — non-GMO, organic and heritage (see definitions in sidebar) — all of which are GAP-certified for level 3 and above, verifying a high standard of animal care that includes genuinely free-range conditions.

“In a lot of ways, we’re circling back to the way we did it in the ’50s and ’60s,” said third-generation farmer David Pitman. “The breeds were slower-growing. There weren’t antibiotics, there wasn’t GMO — the birds were organic.”

Mary’s processes 8,000 turkeys a day to meet the Thanksgiving demand while striving to balance customer expectations with cost. At Natural Grocers, Mary’s non-GMO free-range turkey costs $2.69 per pound, the organic free-range bird $3.99 per pound and the heritage breed $6.99 per pound.

Is a healthier turkey worth the price? Heritage Foods USA’s Martins asserts that spending more per person, especially on a special occasion, is key to both humane treatment and better-quality meat. “The huge change is that people are starting to ask the question ‘Where is this meat from?’ the same way they ask about heirloom seeds and vegetables,” he said.

“The more questions that are asked, the better.”

Zester Daily contributor Lynne Curry is an independent writer based in the mountains of eastern Oregon and the author of "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut" (Running Press, 2012). She blogs at