Turkey Talk

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turkey head

Thanksgiving should be that – a day of Giving Thanks. But, when I ask my students what traditions they think of with Thanksgiving, the foods are a major part of the holiday. Having turkey is one of their top traditions (along with stuffing, mashed potatoes/gravy, and pie). What’s the main thing you like about Thanksgiving? (Personally, my favorite part is gathering with family and friends on that day.)

Is roasting a turkey an important part of your Thanksgiving food tradition?  Do you buy a frozen turkey? Thinking about buying a fresh one but not sure about hormones, antibiotics and additives?


Hopefully, we’ll answer your questions. Below are recommendations for what to look for in making your purchase .

Frozen or Fresh? Which is better?  Frozen turkeys are really fresher than most “fresh” turkeys at the grocery store. Frozen turkeys are flash frozen shortly after butchering while it can be several days between butchering the the time a fresh turkey ends up in your oven. A turkey can be labeled as “fresh” as long as it hasn’t been chilled below 26 degrees F. If you choose a fresh turkey, it won’t take a long time to thaw, but please check the “use by” date.

What about the hormones and antibiotics in turkey?  According to USDA regulations: 1) Hormones are not allowed in the production of turkey in the U.S. 2) Antibiotics can be used in turkey production, but there’s supposed to be a period between antibiotic administration and butchering so the meat can be free of antibiotic residue, 3) Additives are not allowed in Fresh turkeys; any additives like salt, MSG and other substances must be noted on the label if used. (You might find additives in frozen turkeys but not fresh.)

What are Heirloom or Heritage turkeys? These are older breeds that have an ancestry of hundreds of years and are more like wild turkeys. Over the years, turkeys have been bred and treated with chemicals to grow faster and produce more white breast meat. Heritage turkeys have more dark meat and less chemicals than conventional turkeys, but also cost more.


Are Organic turkeys best? All turkeys are supposed to be free of antibiotics and hormones. However, this designation gives assurance that the feed is organically certified, the turkeys are not genetically modified and they haven’t been exposed to radiation. I’m always concerned about what’s in the feed (like genetically modified corn), so I look for turkeys that are fed organically.

Speaking of turkey feed, look beyond just the fact a turkey might be given vegetarian feed. Turkeys (and other birds) naturally prefer a plant-based diet. So, “vegetarian feed” is a given. The key is what’s in the vegetarian feed. I don’t want a bunch of genetically modified corn and other plants. That’s why it’s worth it to me to go beyond “vegetarian” feed and try to find one with organic feed.

What is a Sustainable turkey?  Sustainable farmers aren’t governed by the strict guidelines that are needed for the birds to be certified “organic”. Most, however, use techniques that go beyond the USDA organic guidelines and are focused on the ethical, humane treatment of the birds, preserving the land, and supporting their community and world.

Are Natural turkeys the same as Organic? No. Natural has no regulated meaning as it replies to food. Although “natural” turkeys cost more than conventional ones, they’re really grown the same and are just unbasted, uncolored, or unseasoned. Don’t pay extra for these. They’re really just like a standard mass-produced turkey.

How much ranging do Free Range turkeys actually do?  If a turkey’s labeled as “Free Range”, the grower must allow the turkeys access to an open area outside the turkey house for some time during the day. Not all the turkeys have to be in the yard. But as long as the turkeys have access, all turkeys in that group can be labeled “Free Range”.  That label does NOT mean they wander freely on large amounts of property. There is also concern that freedom can actually stress the turkeys.

What makes a turkey self-basted? Processors inject the bird with a salt solution, often with “natural” flavor enhancers. Please avoid these. The solution is water-based and adds weight. So, you’ll be paying more for the extra weight. And, do you really need salt added to your turkey?

Are broad breasted turkeys genetically modified? With everything we’ve read, it seems that the broad breasted turkeys are NOT genetically modified. They were produced through selective breeding to grow very fast, putting a large amount of meat on their bodies in a short time. The broad breasted birds can’t fly, their legs can’t support all their weight, and they can’t naturally reproduce.

So, what should I buy? Even though they’re more expensive, look for local fresh organic turkeys. In fact, get an heirloom turkey, if possible. You get some assurances that there are no hormone or saline injections, you’re supporting local ranchers, reducing transportation costs, and supporting more compassionate growing conditions rather than the packed conditions found with commercial growers.

turkey farm

A note about the major turkey brands:  The reason there are so many Butterball, Tyson, and other frozen turkeys on the market is because these turkeys are raised in big, crowded factory farms. There’s a lot of abuse that goes on in these situations. Here is a very graphic undercover video about what happens at these big factory farms.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z14IWbUC1J4  Honestly, I can’t totally watch these videos; there are many out there like this one.  The crowded conditions along with rats, cockroaches and flies transferring bacteria from the dead poultry into the feed bins is part of the reason we’ve been seeing so many outbreaks of salmonella with major poultry producers’ products. If you’re going to have a turkey at your Thanksgiving table, try to buy heirloom turkeys and buy from reliable farms. This is another video about raising turkeys that’s much more humane and animal-friendly. http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving/

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