Buy a Pasture-Raised Turkey for Thanksgiving

By Robin Madel

November 1, 2017 — Thanksgiving is fast approaching and for many of us that means a giant turkey full of stuffing, laid out on a platter surrounded by too many of our favorite side dishes. Unfortunately, for the more than 250 million turkeys produced in the United States every year, our one day of delicious feasting comes at the cost of their suffering through often horrendous living conditions. If you’re concerned with where your food comes from and how your turkey was raised, then this month’s action is for you!

How Are Most Turkeys Raised?

The United States is the world’s largest turkey producer and we eat about 17 pounds per person per year. Just over half of all turkeys produced in the US come from four states: Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Missouri. The top turkey producer is Butterball (owned jointly by Maxwell Farms, Inc. and Seaboard Corporation).

Conventionally raised turkeys have been bred to grow so large they can no longer naturally reproduce and often have crippled feet and swollen joints from supporting their own weight. They are raised in barns with ammonia-filled air, and are routinely de-beaked (without pain relievers) to avoid injuring each other in the overcrowded conditions.

In 2014, all Butterball turkeys became American Humane Certified™ through the American Humane Association as part of the company’s corporate citizenship platform. Their standards are based partially on the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare“: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; and freedom from fear and distress. But are their standards meaningful? Maybe not.

Are American Humane Certified™ Standards Meaningful?

Consumer Reports analyzed the American Humane Certified™ program and found many instances “where standards do not require that living conditions and management practices ensure that even these basic ‘freedoms’ are accommodated.” In addition, they’ve had problems in the past ensuring that animal welfare conditions and treatment of animals actually meet their requirements.

There are certification programs that are more meaningful, and if you and your family want to ensure that the bird laid out among the mashed potatoes and corn pudding on your table is actually sustainably raised, Compassion in World Farming can help you with that.

How to Have a More Compassionate Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, commit to buying a bird that was raised with compassion and under humane conditions through one of the certification programs listed in Compassion in World Farming’s (CIWF) Resource Guide. In the guide, you will find a description of three certification programs that let you know the turkeys raised under their guidelines were raised under strict welfare conditions:

  • Animal Welfare Approved : GRACE’s gold standard; Animal Welfare Approved audits and certifies independent family farms for raising farm animals according to the strictest animal welfare standards.
  • Certified Humane Raised & Handled® : Not to be confused with “American Humane Certified™,” Certified Humane Raised & Handled®is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter using animal care standards that were created by a highly-respected scientific committee.
  • Global Animal Partnership : Global Animal Partnership is an organization made up of farmers, scientists, retailers, manufacturers and animal advocates working to improve animal welfare through the GAPS Steps 1-5 certification process (for stronger animal welfare conditions, look for Step 2 or above).

CIWF includes a short list of farms that are certified under some or all three of these labels (find more choices in our post about sustainably raised turkeys). You can also talk to poultry farmers at your local farmers’ market (find a market close to you in this listing) to find out how they raise their turkeys.

CIWF has a list of other ways that turkey welfare can be improved upon but the most immediate action you can take is to buy a turkey from a farm that was certified under the labels above. It will make your feast more meaningful and give everyone something to be more thankful for. And, if the cost of buying sustainably raised turkeys gives you pause, CIWF’s guide gives suggestions for low-cost sides that can help balance out the cost of the meal.
Of course, there is always our favorite message – eat less meat. If sustainably raised turkeys are more than you can afford, consider adding plant-based protein to your Thanksgiving table. Tofu turkey anyone?

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