Once upon a time, in a land called the grocery store, customers could walk right in, grab a turkey, and take it home for Thanksgiving. The only choice to make was about size: big, huge, or insanely enormous? It was a time before words like “heritage” and “organic” became part of our food lexicon; back then, a bird was a bird, and feeding it low dosages of antibiotics in every meal had yet to be connected to the spread of antimicrobial resistant superbugs. It was a simpler time for the American Thanksgiving, but not a better one.
The turkey aisle has a lot more variety now, but it hasn’t made picking the best one easy. Free-range? Organic? Heirloom? Heritage? Is there a difference, and does it matter? Yes and maybe.
But before we delve into the specifics of one good bird versus another, it’s worth noting that all of these are better options than your standard Butterball or otherwise-branded factory farmed meal. The overwhelming majority of the 46 million turkeys that will be eaten this year on Thanksgiving will be CAFO-raised Broad Breasted Whites (BBWs) that each spent their lives in a giant, crowded, filthy shed with ten thousand other turkeys, including some that are dead or diseased. Their diets will have included regular dosages of antibiotics, making them more likely to be carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They will grow to be three times heavier than they would have been in 1929, seriously debilitating them as their unnatural weight wears on their crippled feet and swollen joints. Many of these poor birds will have been thrown, beaten, or otherwise brutalized before finally enduring a cruel death. Add to that the environmental damage of industrial farming, allegations of employee abuse, and lurking dangers like salmonella, and your typical Thanksgiving centerpiece becomes a representation of all that is wrong with our food system. So as long as you avoid one of these, applaud yourself: You are doing humanity and turkeydom alike a serious favor.