Cranberries, stuffing, and pumpkin pie—reason enough to be thankful as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, the pièce de résistance is a perfectly roasted free-range turkey sitting at the center of your Thanksgiving table. Yet the succulent, fragrant bird may hide a secret few of us think about as we savor that first bite.
While the term “free-range” evokes visions of happy turkeys on grassy pastures, many turkey farms that can legally use the free-range designation actually raise their birds in the same conditions as industrial poultry farms.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a turkey farm qualifies as a free-range producer if it provides outdoor access, even if it’s only a small corral. Other than that, the birds can be—and often are—raised in windowless warehouses in cramped cages measuring approximately 3 square feet.
To keep the birds from killing one another in such crowded conditions, the turkeys are routinely debeaked, and part of their toes are cut off—without the benefit of anesthesia. What’s more, they literally wallow in their own waste, surrounded by a constant cloud of ammonia, bacteria, and fungal spores.
And although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow the use of growth hormones in turkeys (as they do in beef), most commercial turkeys are genetically modified to produce the most white meat in the shortest amount of time using the least amount of feed. This unnatural growth spurt leaves the birds barely able to walk, let alone fly, and unable to mate naturally. As a result of these factory-farming practices, turkeys often suffer from heart, respiratory, and skeletal diseases. Pumped full of antibiotics and fed high-protein feed, these birds have weakened immune systems, making them vulnerable to a number of bacterial diseases.
A study by researchers from Ohio State University compared the bacterial resistance of turkeys raised on a factory farm, where antibiotics were routinely used, to that of organically raised turkeys. Less than 2 percent of Campylobacter bacteria strains in the organic birds were resistant to antimicrobial drugs. Yet 67 percent of the strains from factory-farmed birds were resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Fortunately, compassionate, health-conscious consumers are spurring a trend toward buying cruelty-free, organic turkeys that are allowed to freely forage for food in the great outdoors. So how do you find one of these humanely raised birds for your Thanksgiving table? Buying an organically raised, free-range turkey from a local family farmer is the best bet. The Organic Trade Association or Local Harvest, an organization dedicated to promoting local foods, can help you find a nearby farm.
You can also get certified free-range and organic turkeys at some supermarkets and larger natural food stores. Some birds sport the American Humane Certified label or the Certified Humane label. Certified-organic turkeys are also antibiotic free and typically raised humanely, sans cages.
Just remember that truly free-range turkeys are leaner than prebasted, genetically modified birds, so they will cook faster. Sidestep a dry, overcooked turkey by using a meat thermometer to cook the bird to an internal temperature of 165°F to 175°F. You can also ensure moist, flavorful results by brining the bird or roasting it breast-side down.