I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. From pets to wildlife, our world is a better place for all the species that co-habitate planet Earth with us. We need to do more to protect animals though. All animals deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. And while I hope to share the funny, bright side of what animals bring to our lives, I will also highlight some of the atrocities that need to be righted. Fair is fair, don’t ya’ think?
So what can you do? If you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, but want to serve up a more sustainable, healthier turkey for your Thanksgiving dinner, here’s a game plan:
Shop organic: Organic certification assures that the birds receive organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and are raised without antibiotics or growth-enhancers like Roxarsone and Topmax.
Shop local: Smaller, local farms usually employ more sustainable practices that can be better for your turkey and the environment. Even if these farms aren’t certified organic (since getting certified can be costly), it’s probably a better choice. Over the past 5 years of my food journey, I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to get to know your farmer and where you food comes from!
Find a “heritage” turkey: What’s a heritage turkey? Heritage turkeys are what turkeys were before Big Ag started industrializing production with big, broad-breasted birds that are anything but natural. In fact, did you know that industrial turkeys can’t reproduce naturally, they can barely walk, and their narrow gene pool makes them very susceptible to disease? In contrast, heritage turkeys are from strong genetic stock, and they’re raised outdoors with plenty of grass and sunshine. If you’re interested, the Naragansett and Bourbon Red varieties are two great heritage turkey options. For my Thanksgiving this year we’re serving a Bourbon Red turkey from a local farm called Little Bend Heritage Farm (sorry, they’re already sold out of turkeys for 2014).
Ditch the pre-basted turkey: To help you out I did some research and called the Butterball hotline to see if they have any non pre-basted options. Unfortunately what I learned wasn’t great news. First, all of their turkeys are pre-basted. For their regular (not “all-natural“) turkeys that means they’re injected with water, salt, spices, sodium phosphate, and modified food starch. As I discussed in my post about rotisserie chickens, the overuse of phosphates in our food is being linked to some serious health conditions. So I’d avoid these turkeys at all costs. Butterball’s so-called “all natural” turkeys skip the sodium phosphate and modified food starch additives, but they’re still industrialized birds, and they’ve been injected with water, salt, and spices. I realize we’re all in different circumstances and places on our real food journey, but if at all possible, I’d try to avoid these highly commercialized birds.
Finding a better bird, however, can be a bit of a challenge, especiallywith just a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. But if you’re interested here’s what I’d suggest: (more…)
If you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, probably one of the most important decisions you can make for your Thanksgiving dinner is what kind of turkey you’re going to serve. Unfortunately many of the things we should know when buying our Thanksgiving turkeys have been hidden from us.
A while back I had the chance to speak with a former turkey farmer, George “Buddy” Black, about his poultry business. To help shed some light on the importance of understanding where our food comes from, I wanted to share that conversation with you, and George graciously agreed. So let’s talk turkey!
Q: George, tell me a little about how you got into the farming business?
A: I was adopted into a rural farming family in the fertile river valley of Arkansas. I was raised on a small to mid-sized farm where all aspects of life were observed—from birth to death and everything in between. Over the years our family farm grew to several hundred acres, and we raised corn, wheat, soybeans, and cattle. Only later did we add a contract poultry and commercial dairy milking operation.
Q: How did you end up farming turkeys?
A: As we grew our farm, poultry farming seemed like the perfect fit for us. At first we raised chickens thinking not only could we use the chicken manure as fertilizer for our crops, but also use poultry farming to provide another profit stream. In 1990 we switched from raising chickens to turkey—the chicken business had already become very competitive, and we thought raising turkeys would be more profitable.
Q: How big was your farm?
A: Originally we had three chicken barns that we converted. Then we built an additional six, state-of-the-art turkey barns. Although this left us in HUGE debt, we were producing a minimum of 250,000-300,000 turkeys a year.
Q: How was poultry farming different than other forms of farming you’ve done?
A: As a contract poultry farmer you really don’t have ANY flexibility in your operation. Let me explain a little.
As independent farmers who raised beef, dairy and row crops. the freedom was all ours. We had the flexibility to grow what we wanted and invest in the spots where we saw the greater profit margins. We had the opportunity to work with nature and build our lives and our children’s lives. We had more of an upper hand on our business and where we wanted to invest—so year to year that might mean planting more corn and less wheat, or to expand or shrink our dairy—growing as we deemed acceptable, how, where and when wanted.
Contract poultry was none of this. Corporate supplied the birds, feed, medications, and veterinary expertise, and by contract they received a constant supply of birds that were predictable in size, weight, health and harvest percentages. In exchange the farm received free fertilizer (from the poultry manure) and a minimum pay scale per bird plus bonuses if feed conversion, mortality, grade-ability were above the industry set standards. Theoretically we had the “freedom” to run the business as we pleased, but corporate really controlled most the variables, and when you signed up, you were locked into that company for 5 years. It’s frightening to look back now and see just how bound we were to the corporate ways. Yikes!
Q: When did you first realize your move into turkey farming might be a mistake?
Photo taken for NY Times piece entitled: Chicken's Attraction Is Truly Skin Deep
The photo above from a recent NY Times article entitled “Chicken’s Attraction Is Truly Skin Deep” has created quite a stir. According the Atlantic wire, PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, isn’t laughing at the provocatively-posed chicken and was quoted as saying: “It’s downright offensive, not just to people who care about animals but almost to everyone. It’s a plucked, beheaded, young chicken in a young pose.”
I must say, I agree with PETA. I’m not laughing either. I eat meat, and this photo concerns me. I think I understand why it doesn’t bother others, and it traces back to some fundamental differences in how different people perceive food. In fact, I just spoke about this topic in this week’s blog article entitled, “Do You Trust Where Your Meat Comes From.” You see, in today’s food system, we’ve distanced ourselves so far from the chicken, that what we buy at the grocery store is viewed by many as a mere piece of protein. A “widget” per se…just another commodity.
The reality is that chickens are living, sentient creatures, and their lives are sacrificed to feed us. Although I personally don’t have ethical problems with that, my caveat is that the chicken deserves to be treated humanely and with dignity. This pose turns the death of a living being into a prop, and in the process shows careless disregard for life.
In man’s history on earth, there have been many times when he has disrespected life, and it has never led to anything positive. Let’s not forget where our meat comes from. Rather, let us be thankful and remember the sacrifice it has made to nourish us.
What do you think of the photo? How does it make you feel? Please help get the conversation started and share your thoughts and feelings by commenting below.
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Have you ever gone to a potluck and wondered if your co-worker’s kitchen was as dirty as their desk? How about restaurants or street vendors? If their establishment looks dirty, are you going to trust their food? Probably not.
Every day we all make decisions about our food and what’s safe to eat. Sometimes we labor over the options, while at other times it just involves a split second of judgment. No matter how smart we may feel about a given choice, my guess is that our food intuition has dulled significantly over the past fifty years. You see, there was a time when quality food wasn’t just about the cleanliness of where your food was prepared. Rather, people knew their butcher and grocer. And if you go back even further, they knew the farmers and ranchers. People talked about the quality of a farm’s crops or livestock. In short, they knew where their food came from.
For the past several generations, much of that insight has been lost. That’s especially true when it comes to the meat aisle of the grocery store. Packages of beef, pork, and poultry magically appear in neatly wrapped containers with “best sale” dates that make everything seem equal. The truth has become invisible because we assume it’s all good. But documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma have helped increase awareness that all meat isn’t the same, and we still have the choice to buy responsibly-raised food. During this food reawakening, many of the big meat producers did their best to stay hidden and out of the crosshairs. They refused interviews and restricted access to their farms or plants, essentially battening down the hatches for the storm. After all, the current system WAS working for them.
But as the food movement has gained steam, that has started to change. As a recent Civil Eats article reports, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is now hosting “Food Dialogues” in order “to amplify the voice of farmers and ranchers and help consumers know more about ‘how their food is grown and raised.'” Well, isn’t that nice of them. After years of refusing to go on camera, now they and their members want to have a dialogue. Really?
As Civil Eats points out, perhaps we shouldn’t trust the altruistic intentions of USFRA. After all, they are a trade association funded by some of the most powerful U.S. food corporations and advocacy groups including Dupont, Monsanto, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. And much like other Big Food Company lobbyists, they are painting a pure, idealistic picture of the status quo. Here, take a look at the video from USFRA’s website:
Looks pretty nice, huh? But if you strip away the niceties of this public relations piece and take an honest look at what USFRA’s membership stands for on key issues, it isn’t a pretty picture anymore. In fact, they’ve taken a decidedly aggressive stance against each of the following sensible, forward-looking policies:
Regulating antibiotic usage and abuse in livestock production
Reducing hormone usage
Tighter rules on the application of pesticides
EPA regulations impacting farms to ensure clean water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Now while some may argue these positions are more about anti big government sentiments, interestingly some members of USFRA support increased whistle-blower regulations–laws that would criminalize the use of undercover video to expose atrocities and mistreatment of animals at livestock operations, hatcheries, and research facilities. So let me get this straight. They are anti-regulation that would improve food safety and pro-legislation that reduces the threat of watchdogs. Hmmm…. sounds like a pretty self-serving agenda to me, and one that I just don’t trust. And isn’t that the reality in today’s food world? We shouldn’t just trust the food that’s out there. We need to ask questions and do our homework.
So what are the questions we need to ask? Here’s the list I try to remember when I’m shopping for beef, chicken or pork:
What were the animals fed? Look for USDA organic certification as your best bet. This ensures the animals were fed 100% organically produced ingredients, no growth hormones or antibiotics, no GMOs, and no animal by-products of any form.
How were they raised? Look for free-range and ranch raised. These are indications that the animals were raised more humanely and that their diet was more well-rounded then penned up/confined factory farm operations. But it’s important to know the farm since both these terms can be abused by unscrupulous corporate marketing interests. Finally, ignore the term cage-free since it is basically meaningless. Chickens can still be raised in factory farm warehouses and be designated as cage-free birds.
Does the farm use sustainable, environmentally friendly practices? USDA organic certification can help here as well since it restricts the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Were the animals treated humanely? This is probably the toughest question on the list to answer. While there are some certifications out there, it really comes down to knowing your farmer or butcher, and trusting them.
How can you go about finding a farmer near you that may meet your criteria? The Organic Consumer Association (www.organicconsumers.org) has a great directory of green and organic businesses for a variety of products and services. If you can’t find a farmer near you, there are farms that will ship frozen meat, poultry and pork products to you. Rocky Mountain Organic Meats is one that I’m familiar with, but I know there are many options out there. Just make sure and do your homework to find a farmer you can trust.
Now some may balk at the higher price of responsibly-raised meat, but as 11 year-old Birke Baehr rather eloquently said in a recent TEDx event: “We can all make different choices by buying our foods from organic farmers… Some people say that organic or local food is more expensive. With all of the things that I have been learning about the food system, we could either pay the organic farmer or the hospital.” Check Birke out here:
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I love animals, and I can’t resist sharing fun animal photos or videos. I saw this one yesterday morning, and knew it had to be shared.
As you watch this video, you can’t help but realize that otters are smart, playful creatures. Thank goodness sea otters are still with us! Widely hunted for their fur until the early 1900’s, sea otters were on the verge of extinction with their world population dwindling to 2,000 or less. International hunting bans and conservation efforts have helped sea otter populations recover, although the species still remains classified as an endangered.
When industries claim regulation is unfair, you don’t have to look too far for an example of where it was needed and helped improve a horrible situation. I’m glad we’re protecting sea otter populations. Unfortunately there are still thousands of animal species that are threatened by man. And how about our mistreatment of domesticated animals raised by factory farms and modern CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations)? Don’t all animals deserve to be treated with respect and dignity? What can we do to make a difference? What are you doing?