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Every Thanksgiving, we gather with our family and friends to celebrate what we’ve been thankful for in the past year. Thanksgiving, more than any other American holiday, also invites us to reflect on the food we put on our table. For those of us who oppose the cruelty and waste of factory farming, the traditional turkey is an unbefitting centerpiece.
In the not-too-distant past, farmers needed their animals to be as healthy as possible in order to turn the greatest profit. That changed when the industry realized that with factory farms, “you don’t need healthy animals to make a profit. Sick animals are more profitable.”1 Now virtually all turkeys found in supermarkets are produced on factory farms. These birds grow 65 percent larger in 60 percent less time than turkeys produced in 1935,2 and this “efficiency” comes at a heavy price: factory-farmed turkeys are unable to fly or reproduce on their own and often cannot walk normally.3 The majority of them suffer from skeletal deformations, metabolic disorders, and weak immune systems.4 To make matters worse, no law protects them from even the most egregious abuses during slaughter.5 And this year, the worst avian flu outbreak on record led to the deaths of millions of turkeys across the country.6
“Absence of turkey can be a very positive thing,” says Mark Bittman, former New York Times food columnist and author of Food Matters.7 “Most people have roughly 360 dinners a year that have ‘absence of turkey.’ We eat it on Thanksgiving because we’re supposed to.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, a Farm Forward board member and the author of Eating Animals, also wonders if we need a turkey at all:
At the center of our Thanksgiving tables is an animal that never breathed fresh air or saw the sky until it was packed away for slaughter. At the end of our forks is an animal that was incapable of reproducing sexually. In our bellies is an animal with antibiotics in its belly. The very genetics of our birds are radically different. If the pilgrims could have seen into the future, what would they have thought of the turkey on our table? Without exaggeration, it’s unlikely that they would recognize it as a turkey.”8
Thanksgiving turkeys account for nearly 15 percent of the 300 million sold each year. The decision not to serve meat from factory farms at Thanksgiving, when made by enough conscientious consumers across the country, will send a powerful message to the industry that factory farming is unacceptable. The fact that we have the opportunity to decide for ourselves what to eat this Thanksgiving is not something to take for granted. We have the privilege of choice—what choice will we make?
Eating with your values in mind this Thanksgiving does not mean you have to go hungry. There is a small market for pasture-raised, heritage turkeys—like those produced by Frank Reese’s Good Shepherd Ranch—but the supply is minuscule. Good Shepherd Ranch, for example, sells out six months in advance of Thanksgiving. Many consumers find it easier to simply drop meat from the menu.
So what should our most thanks-filled meal of the year look like? From coconut-mashed yams to stuffed acorn squash to lentil cranberry loaf, Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food blog, Food & Wine, Whole Foods, and the New York Times all offer an abundant array of plant-based holiday recipes.
Our goal at Farm Forward is to look beyond factory farming and move our systems of food production in a better direction. To this end, and just in time for Thanksgiving, we launched BuyingPoultry, a free online buying guide that makes it easy for you to find the highest welfare products available. With the help of BuyingPoultry, you can join the fight against factory farming every time you visit the grocery store. None of this work is possible without your help: Keep the momentum going by making a donation today!
This Thanksgiving, use BuyingPoultry to find higher welfare poultry products and plant-based alternatives near you.
Have you found a way to eat according to your conscience this year? We want to know!
Share your plans for (or stories from) a conscientious Thanksgiving meal by contacting us, commenting on our Facebook page, or tweeting @FarmForward, and your celebration could be featured on our website. (Some of our favorite submissions are below.)
Especially at holidays that are notorious for their waste of food, we make it a point to eat vegetarian. —Czikus
Our 10 year old Charlotte knows we never eat meat from factory farms even on Thanksgiving. Our tradition is being in charge of finding a turkey for when we travel to our family gatherings. But this year we are staying home. Charlotte has been sharing how we eat with her best friend. —Mandy
While I don’t eat poultry, my husband and his family do, so we ordered a heritage turkey to be delivered to his parents the day before Thanksgiving. It’s more expensive, but a great way to say thanks to my in-laws for hosting us. More importantly, it feels good to know that the holiday celebration will be as cruelty-free as possible, not to mention better for the environment, healthier, and from what I understand, tastier. —Dan
We usually grow our own heritage, pastured turkeys, but took a break this year and did not grow any. So I purchased our turkey from East of Eden Farm in Huntersville, NC. These heritage Bronze Turkeys were grown on pasture and organic, no-GMO, no-soy feeds. Purchasing from this young family farm keeps the money in the community, allows them to continue to farm, is environmentally sound and more humane. I have been in NC factory farmed chicken and turkey houses. It is the most disgusting, inhumane sight I have ever seen. —Stacy
After educating myself about the treatment of factory-farmed animals a few years ago, I made a drastic change to my diet. The vast majority of my meals are vegetarian these days, though I occasionally make an exception for meat that is locally sourced and humanely raised. My family had a hard time accepting my new eating habits at first, but after listening to me talk about what I’d learned, they started to understand. They’re not willing to give up meat entirely, but they do try to buy from local farmers when they can. This year, my mother bought a turkey from a friend of hers, one of only 7 that they raised. To be honest, I would be quite content with the vegetable sides, but the turkey is really important to the rest of my family, and I love that they go to such lengths so that I can enjoy it too. —Nicole
I am a transplant from the UK and Thanksgiving is not one of our celebrations, and in all the 12 years I have been in the U.S. I have never had a true American Thanksgiving dinner – I have just been invited to my first this year and will be taking along a vegan ‘meat’loaf with mushroom gravy – recipe yet to be cobbled together. —Gillian
My family chooses to eat locally-grown and totally awesome farmers market fruits and veggies and gorge ourselves without taking the lives of any awesome creatures! How about that for values! —Lizzie
We make a slew of veggie dishes and stuffing and homemade rolls and maybe even some veggie tamales and spread out a picnic blanket and eat outside with all the other critters. —Stacey
Because Thanksgiving is about being thankful, I wanted to prepare a meal without serving an animal who suffered before ending up on our table. With all of the vegetables, bread, potatoes and desserts available, no one left hungry or wanting more. It is shameful to see how animals are treated in factory farms but it’s a reality that we all need to be aware of. Not only are the conditions for animals unfathomable, but these farms also destroy our environment and contribute to health problems like cancer, diabetes, and obesity. My family didn’t miss turkey on Thanksgiving this year, and I’m very thankful for that! —Gina
With our friends, we write a list of things for which we are most thankful. With our lists in our pockets, we go out with trash bags and pick up litter (and recycling) in our neighborhood and along the creek. Folks passing by ask what we are doing, and some even join in! After about an hour or two, we go back and get ready for our vegan feast. It’s always delicious (we like Quorn products for meat substitutes). This is our fourth annual event of this kind. —Jon
I discovered Frank Reese and Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch after reading about him on the Farm Forward website. This year, for the first time, I ordered and prepared a heritage turkey from Good Shepherd for my family. It was surprisingly different than the turkeys I’m used to, but definitely more like the turkeys I remember as a child. The meat was delicious and the cooking directions perfect. It was clearly our best Thanksgiving bird ever! The genetic changes in current turkeys are really noticeable: There was so much more muscle in the legs of the heritage turkey, and it made me realize that modern turkeys have much weaker bones and cartilage. The heritage bird was thinner and the meat much more balanced. You can really see how they’ve bred modern turkeys to have misshapen breasts. It makes me sad to realize how few people appreciate the purity of the heritage bird. Thank you for assisting Frank Reese in his efforts to preserve these animals for future generations. —Ann
When I was tasked this year with hosting Thanksgiving for my family and friends I decided to cook a meal that reflected my growing awareness of food ethics and my current values about food production. I eat meat and all of my guests except one were also omnivores, but I set a mostly vegetarian menu to reflect the fact that I think of meat as being just a part of a conscientious diet. Everything but the turkey was vegetarian or vegan. I got my turkey from a local poultry farm that raises free-range, hormone-free chickens and turkeys. It is a family run business that is located within 25 miles of my home. This choice reflected a couple of values I am developing about food. First and foremost, I tried to select a bird from the most humane farm I could find and from a place that I could actually read about and understand their practices. But equally as important to me was to pick a local business and one that would allow me to actually visit the farm where the animal was grown. To continue my local, best-practice theme I searched out a farmers market (not easy in the midwest in November, but possible!) and purchased as much of my produce as I could from the (mostly) organic farmers there. I was actually pleasantly surprised with how easy this was to do. The only fresh items I couldn’t find at the market were herbs and green beans. The best surprise were some cranberries from Michigan that I turned into a wonderful sauce (much better than canned). All in all, with only a little extra effort, I was able to cook a meal I was proud of because it reflected my belief that the best food is that which is produced mostly locally by small businesses who use environmentally responsible and humane practices. And the best part? This kind of food simply tastes better too! —Abby
Thanksgiving is held at my parents’ house, where it isn’t a meal if there isn’t meat. However, after reading Foer’s Eating Animals, I decided to stick my neck out and at least inform my mom about more humane, sustainable turkey options (I knew no turkey was not an option). I offered to pay for the turkey myself, or pay for the wine, to make up the difference in the cost of a typical grocery store turkey and one from Frank Reese’s farm. Guess what?! It worked! My mom is a bit nervous about this turkey being different than what she’s used to working with, but I am confident it will only be different in that it’s more delicious. —Elizabeth
I know that Tofurky gets a bad reputation, but I am serving one this year, for my first vegetarian Thanksgiving. I’ve had Tofurky before and I love it! I’m a traditionalist so I am not straying too far from the beaten path: green bean casserole, glazed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce from scratch, and cornbread stuffing. But I’ll be using vegetable broth to make the stuffing and omitting the chopped hard-boiled egg. For dessert: homemade crepes with caramelized apples. Best of all, my significant other is omnivorous but supportive, so this will be his first vegetarian Thanksgiving meal too. I am hoping it will catch on with him after this year. We are really looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner this year! —Angela
I don’t typically eat meat. We have a CSA with a small farm in Wisconsin called Living the Dream Farm. We mostly get eggs, goat cheese and greens, but we also paid for a turkey back in April. Our farmer, Khaiti Kaleck, raises her turkeys with love all year, and also harvests them with love. She talks to them and holds them while they go. It’s still not a vegetarian choice, but as a Mother who wants to raise my meat-loving family to care about the planet and the welfare of its beings, it is a pretty great choice. —Tatiana
Heritage Poultry Farmer Frank Reese, as quoted by Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009) :111
W. Boyd, “Making Meat: Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production.” in Technology and Culture, Vol 42. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001): 631 – 664.
Cite: T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing., “Genetics and animal welfare.” in Genetics and the behavior of domestic animals. (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998): 319 – 341.
W. Boyd, “Making Meat: Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production.” in Technology and Culture, Vol 42. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001): 661.
Bruce Friedrich, “Still in the Jungle: Poultry Slaughter and the USDA,” N.Y.Y. Environmental Law Journal 23:247-298 (2015), available here.
“Bird deaths by county: The avian flu outbreak in Minnesota,” Minnesota Public Radio, May 29 2015, available here.
“Vegetarian Thanksgiving can be every bit as traditional and comforting as one with turkey,” The Associated Press, November 1, 2012.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009): 250.