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Where and How to Buy a Sustainable, Ethical Turkey

Posted by Julia Smith on

Buying a turkey can be a tricky business if you care about animal welfare. There are a number of animal welfare certifying bodies out there now which seems like a good way to monitor that sort of thing but you really can't make assumptions about these standards. For example, farms certified through "Global Animal Partnership" can still employ practices such as beak and toe trimming (a common practice used to prevent the birds from injuring each other when kept in close quarters). Big companies know that consumers care about sustainability and animal welfare. We see it used in advertising everywhere these days.

Small farms such as ours have to compete in a marketplace increasingly dominated by greenwashing and this most recent trend in animal welfare certification. Our challenge is to communicate to consumers the difference between that "local, animal welfare certified" turkey that never saw the light of day and had to have cosmetic surgery to prevent it from killing its roommates and the turkeys that were raised by my friend Joe in his 5 acre pasture with all their body parts intact. My fear is that labels have become conversation enders instead of conversation starters. They aren't necessarily a bad thing but if you really want to make food choices that reflect your values, you have to look beyond the label.

Last week’s blog contains some good tips and questions to ask when speaking with farmers about how the animals were raised. When purchasing turkeys in particular, ask about physical alterations such as de-beaking and toe-clipping. 

Heritage or Hybrid?



Most commercial turkeys are a hybrid bred to have large breasts, grow quickly and thrive in confinement systems. Those large breasts get in the way of breeding so conventional turkeys need to be artificially inseminated.

Heritage turkeys can breed naturally, take longer to raise, have more dark meat and smaller breasts, have longer natural life spans, are heartier and tend to do better in pasture systems. They also tend to have more flavourful meat.

Price Range

That 88 cent turkey you see at the local grocery store is a hybrid that was raised in a conventional CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) and was physically altered to allow for large numbers of birds to be housed in small spaces without injuring each other. They are fed conventional feed formulated to maximize growth. They have light 24 hours a day so they eat more and grow faster and the barn is climate controlled so they don’t “waste” calories regulating their body temperature.

On the other end of the scale would be a pasture raised heritage bird raised on organic feed.  They grow much more slowly and eat more food as they have to regulate their own body temperature and burn calories running around in the pasture. Organic feed is generally lower in protein than conventional feed which contributes to the slower growth. The cost of raising birds this way makes a sustainable business model a real challenge.

Somewhere in between you’ll find a range of other options. Price is generally a good indication of how the birds were raised but it’s important to ask questions too. 

Where to Buy Well-Raised Local Turkey

Here are some local farms where turkey is being raised to much higher standards than most:

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