How to Shop for the Highest Quality Turkey This Thanksgiving

November 03, 2017

Are you careful about the quality of the meat you buy? Is it “organic?” Maybe it’s labeled as “hormone free” or “raised without antibiotics?” These are great steps to take to help ensure that you’re eating high-quality meat, but with Thanksgiving approaching, turkeys will soon take center stage. So let’s talk about turkeys, and some things to keep in mind when you buy your bird this year.

First, I would absolutely encourage you to choose a turkey that is not raised with the use of ANY growth-promoting drugs. Most people typically associate this with antibiotics or hormones, but there are actually a slew of other drugs that are fed to animals, turkeys included, that are used to accelerate growth and can have negative impacts on public health. A study published by a group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that feeding poultry with an arsenic-based growth promoter called Roxarsone resulted in detectable and dangerous levels of arsenic in poultry meat. This research led to the very recent withdrawal of the drug from the market, but it is a good example of how perfectly legal and USDA-approved drugs can still present problems.[1] Another class of problematic growth promoters commonly used in turkey production are the beta-adrenergic agonists (a type of asthma medication that speeds growth in livestock). These drugs have the potential to show up in the meat of animals and result in an unexpected type of food poisoning as was demonstrated in Taiwan recently.[2] [3] This shouldn’t be too surprising when you read the warning label from a type of turkey feed that contains this type of drug:

“WARNING: The active ingredient in Topmax, ractopamine hydrochloride, is a beta-adrenergic agonist. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children…When mixing and handling Topmax, use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask. Operators should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. If accidental eye contact occurs, immediately rinse eyes thoroughly with water. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. The material safety data sheet contains more detailed occupational safety information…”

Sounds like a great thing to feed animals, doesn’t it?

And while you won’t see a label saying “raised without ractopamine HCl,” there are ways to avoid meat that was raised in this fashion. First and foremost, find a grocer that you trust who knows about these practices and does not sell products from animals raised like this. Here at Natural Grocers we have had a long-standing policy that the use of any growth promoting drugs is not allowed in our meat and are very proud of the quality of Mary’s Turkeys we feature every Thanksgiving (see our complete meat standards here).

You can go a step further and purchase a certified organic turkey. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has done a great job of keeping these drugs out of their program and farms that receive this certification are audited by a third party inspection service. Unfortunately there is a downfall to the current organic regulations in terms of outdoor access for poultry—the NOSB’s definition on what constitutes outdoor access is relatively loose. Indeed, some producers have taken advantage of this definition (or lack thereof) and created simple fenced-in concrete porches and deemed this “outdoor access;” however, the organic industry is trying to fix this problem by putting pressure on the administration to accept newly proposed rules and standards for raising animals organically (find out more here). But until this change is enforced, one could say that not all organic poultry is created equal, as some producers are going above and beyond the minimum standard. 110117_ehhl_how_to_shop_for_the_highest_quality_turkey_this_thanksgiving_sh_v14If substantial outdoor space for livestock is something that is important to you when buying an organic turkey, look for a producer who goes beyond the organic requirements—another reason we are proud to feature Mary’s Turkeys. The farms that raise Mary’s Turkeys provide the animals with a minimum of 2.5 square feet of outdoor access per bird, giving their birds about four times more space to roam than is provided at the average commercial turkey ranch. They also make sure that this outdoor space has plenty of vegetative cover, shade, water, and other enrichments—really going above and beyond the basic requirements.

It can be hard to talk about these things without painting a sad and scary picture of the meat industry. What should be pointed out and applauded is that not everyone is doing things the conventional way. We know that Mary’s Turkeys are doing things right—all of their turkeys are fed a non-GMO diet, given room to roam, and never given any growth promoters or fed antibiotics. As one of my colleagues likes to remind me: We are in the middle of a food revolution—Americans want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. What could be a better time to celebrate the highest quality food than at Thanksgiving with a non-GMO, free range turkey that we here at Natural Grocers are proud to serve to our own families?

Happy Thanksgiving!


[1] Nachman KE, Baron PA, Raber G, Francesconi KA, Navas-Acien A, Love DC. Roxarsone, inorganic arsenic, and other arsenic species in chicken: a U.S.-based market basket sample. Environ Health Perspect. 2013; 121(7): 818-824

[2] Prezelj A, Obreza A, Pecar S. Abuse of clenbuterol and its detection. Curr Med Chem. 2003; 10(4): 281-290

[3] Wu ML, et al. Late diagnosis of an outbreak of leanness-enhancing agent related food poisoning. Am J Emerg Med. 2013; 31(10): 1501-1503

Written by: Jonathan Clinthorne, PhD

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