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I’ve been buying the Thanksgiving turkey for a few years now. I fight the crowds at Whole Foods, spend a crazy amount (last year I paid $75 for a 20-pound bird), and hand it off to my mother for cooking. And every year at least one or two people tell me I am insane to spend that kind of money and ask me why I am bothering. Conventional birds are just as good, they say, and I will save a ton of money. While it’s true I might save money — conventional turkeys were $1.79 per pound when I last looked — I think the value that we’ll get from an organic turkey is worth the extra $40, especially on a holiday.

My reasons are both health- and conscience-related. On the health side of things, organic turkeys are free of antibiotics and growth hormones that are commonly found in conventional turkey. (Check out this great blog on the subject from Green Talk.) As for the whole doing-the-right-thing thing, well, I think it would probably be much smarter and easier to let one of the experts I’ve interviewed do the talking instead. Here is the interview I did with Sharanya Krishna Prasad, U.S. Programs Officer with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) about the very topic:

KB: Why is organic turkey so expensive?

Krishna Prasad: Organic turkey is currently more expensive for various reasons. Intensive agriculture is highly subsidized by the U.S. government, and the price of products from intensively raised animals does not consider the true environmental, human health and animal welfare costs associated with producing and consuming factory farmed meat. As the demand for more humane meats increases, and when industry standards for all animal-derived products are raised, the cost of these products will become more competitive.

KB: There are so many different options out there. If I can’t afford organic, what are some of the more acceptable labels I should be looking for?

Krishna Prasad: When shopping for a turkey, look for labels such as “Pasture Raised,” “USDA Organic,” “American Humane Certified,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Certified Humane.” These labels mean animals should have been raised under more humane standard where they were given access to sunlight and fresh air and had freedom of movement. They were also spared non-therapeutic antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones. Avoid misleading labels like “Natural” or “Naturally Raised.” While “Naturally Raised” ensures animals were not given antibiotics or hormones, this label does not mean the animals have freedom, fresh air or sunlight. The term “Natural” has no relevance to animal welfare and merely indicates that the product doesn’t have artificial additives.

KB: Is it worth buying organic over pasture-raised or the other non-organic labels you just mentioned?

Krishna Prasad: WSPA has developed an easy-to-use humane classification system where labeling claims have been designated as ‘Good’, ‘Better’, or ‘Best’ depending on the level of animal welfare required by the claim standard. Under this classification system, both USDA organic and pasture-raised fall under the same category — ‘Better.’

For turkeys, the best labels to look for are Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Certified Humane. If products with these labels are unavailable, we recommend choosing from one of the ‘Better’ or ‘Good’ category labels such as USDA organic, pasture-raised, or free range. If a turkey doesn’t have one of these labels, it was raised without the consideration of animal welfare, and buyers may be paying a premium for products that likely don’t meet their expectations in terms of the impacts on animals.

KB: How can I get my store to carry the “Better” or “Good” categories of turkey?

Krishna Prasad: Consumers should request humane food products from their retailers by speaking with the purchasing manager of the stores they frequently shop at. Studies have shown that it only takes a few customers to request a product before a store will carry it. In addition, WSPA’s website www.EatHumane.org has a postcard that consumers can print and drop off at the comments and suggestions box at their store to request more humane products.

KB: Does organic turkey taste different than the Butterball everyone might be used to?

Krishna Prasad: While some studies have been conducted on the taste of meat from organically-raised turkeys versus meat from intensively raised animals, to my knowledge they have not been conclusive. WSPA has noticed a trend among gourmet restaurants featuring more locally sourced, humanely-raised products on their menus. Chefs are probably taking in to account both the better care and fewer resources it takes to raise animals humanely. But I am sure they are considering the good taste as well. Today most food offered for sale in major U.S. supermarkets is from animals raised under intensive confinement on large factory style farms. These animals are typically denied fresh air and sunlight, and given very limited freedom to move and express their natural behaviors. Polls have shown that a large majority of Americans think the way farm animals are raised is important to them. Consumers who choose humane turkeys can be assured that the animals were given more natural living conditions and are typically given access to fresh air and sunlight, and freedom to move and express their natural behaviors.

So there you have it. Will this affect the way you shop for meat this holiday season? Was I insane for spending so much on a turkey that was gone in less than 20 minutes? I’d love to hear your feedback.

2 Responses to “Turkey Talk: Why Organic Rules”

  1. Peter Eicher says:

    Totally agree! I get my yearly turkey from Makinajian Poultry Farm on Long Island. It’s free range and organic and this year was $3.99 a pound, so that’s right in your $75 range (though mine was only 14 pounds). Is it worth it? Absolutely! The taste is miles beyond supermarket turkey. For everyone that thinks turkey is dull, they just haven’t tasted a real bird. It’s not just that the birds are organic. They live a different life, eat different things, and are very often just different birds genetically from the factory turkeys (the same taste difference you will get between factory pork and heirloom pork, factory tomatoes vs heirloom tomatoes, etc.).

    You also have the satisfaction of knowing the poor animal didn’t live a life of torment. So I agree that while it’s a lot more than the supermarket turkey (actually they were going for 39 cents a pound at Waldbaums!) it’s the only way to go.

  2. Thank you so much for citing the Green Talk article and the further discussion about buying organic turkeys.

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