Turkey: An American Institution

You get what you pay for, but not necessarily what you bargained for.

From very early on, American folklore featured pilgrims gathered at the Plymouth settlement to celebrate their first successful harvest in America. Despite romantic interpretation and embellishment of this first Thanksgiving banquet, historical accounts are clear on one detail—it most certainly included the wild American turkey.

As you may suspect, those wild turkeys bear little resemblance to the modern farm-raised bird. You may not realize, however, that today’s behemoth turkeys mature in a relatively short timeframe (14 to 18 weeks), often being slaughtered and frozen months before our holiday dinner is prepared. A typical supermarket turkey is raised in a grow house, rarely  seeing the light of day, and by the end of its life cycle cannot even spread its wings due to cramped quarters. Many are injected with hormones and antibiotics, fed high-fat diets, and have trouble supporting their enhanced body weight on their own legs as the time for slaughter nears. This may all seem pretty inhumane, but it is the price we pay for an inexpensive turkey—a product often sold at a loss by supermarkets to attract customers during what is traditionally the busiest shopping period of the year.


Fresh, organic turkeys provide a much more natural alternative to farm-factory birds, but don’t be taken in by clever marketing. Packaging terminology that appears to make some birds more appealing may not always mean what you think. Signs for fresh, free-range, and cage-free all sound good and lead you to assume that a particular turkey is better for you or raised in a more humane manner. Although these descriptions almost always mean that you pay a premium at the register, they do not necessarily mean the turkey you purchased was raised organically and in a humane way.

The term “fresh” turkey simply means that the turkey was never frozen below 26 degrees and “free-range” in some cases simply means that the grow house has an opening to an outside pen that may be nothing more than a gravel yard—not that the turkey actually had free range in a field. A true free-range turkey will be raised in a grass pen and allowed to use its beak for eating grubs and picking at the ground. These birds will be healthier, have more muscle, and live a more humane life. Be prepared to spend two to three times more for your fresh holiday bird, but the taste and satisfaction of serving a more humanly raised turkey will be worth the added cost.

A Better Bird

Shelton’s Poultry Inc. in Pomona, California, is one of several companies that offer certified-organic and free-range turkeys. According to Gary Flannigan, president of the corporation, the certified organic birds taste just like the freerange birds—consumer preferences stem more from their philosophical viewpoint: Is healthier food your goal, or do you demand the higher standard of healthier and humane?

Flannigan says Shelton’s raises turkeys indoors for the first few weeks, and then lets them outside for the rest of their lives. Organic turkeys are fed certified organic feed grain, while free-range birds get lots of exercise and sunlight. For producers like Shelton’s, antibiotics or animal by-products, which are routinely used in conventional production, have no place in raising birds of either feather.

Start with where the purchase is made. Before buying your turkey, do a little bit of research. The process does not need to be complicated. If a supplier doesn’t take your questions seriously, it is likely that their birds are not up to par. On the other hand, a supplier that has made the effort to acquire these specialty birds will know the answers off hand, or has the information easily available. Stores such as Whole Foods or local meat markets can assure that your holiday turkey was humanely raised. Ask your retailer about the quality standards of their supplier and whether the turkeys were given antibiotics, fed an all-vegetarian diet, were prepared with no added solutions or injections (other than pure sea-salt solution brining where noted), and can be traced directly back to the farm. These answers will help you make an informed choice.