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Talking Turkey and Family Values

By Cindy Mehallow

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

In my quest for a more sustainable Thanksgiving meal this year, I decided take a values-based investing approach. Why not apply the same ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles that I write about in sustainability reports to this marquis meal?

Conscious-driven consumption

Since I believe that my purchases can change society in a way that politicians and legislation cannot, I’ve been steadily shifting more family food dollars toward locally sourced, organic foods. (Given the price of organic food, our grocery bills now often rival investment payments.) As the most extravagant meal of the year, Thanksgiving dinner presented the perfect opportunity to apply this sourcing approach.

So, I began by screening the traditional Thanksgiving menu, focusing on the most material issues, which I identified as the environmental footprint of the largest single component -- the turkey. Then I looked for a more responsible alternative.

Factory farmed, for free

In Thanksgivings past, poultry procurement consisted of my sister getting a free frozen Grade-A turkey from her local supermarket as a reward for achieving a specified spending threshold. Like the vast majority of other turkeys sold in grocery stores, this bird would be a conventionally raised “broad breasted white” breed, raised on a factory farm, or Commercial Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

With thousands of other identical fowl, our turkey would have spent its short life tightly packed indoors with other doomed gobblers, eating feed laced with hormones and antibiotics to fatten it up as quickly and cheaply as possible. Bred to develop large, white meaty breasts, these birds are so top-heavy that they’re unable to reproduce naturally, have difficulty standing up on their own and can’t feed the old-fashioned way, pecking around for bugs and such.

It quickly became apparent that given the big bird’s poor treatment, lack of genetic diversity and chemical diet, this option had several practices that didn’t align with my personal values.

As if that weren’t enough, further research revealed two other considerations that clinched the decision. During the processing, the turkey probably would have been injected with chemical additives, aka “tenderizing solution,” which poultry processors add to overcome the tastelessness of the bland flesh. Finally, the energy footprint of a frozen bird includes Scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions incurred during freezing, transportation and refrigeration.

In search of a better bird

My decision was final – no factory-farmed fowl would preside over our family’s feast this year. Online research revealed three primary alternatives to the conventional birds: heritage, organic and free-range birds, all of which could likely be obtained locally and without the chemical injections.

Heritage: A trendy but pricey option are heritage turkeys, old breeds no longer commercially produced and in danger of dying out. They grow more slowly than the broad breasted white and are thus more costly to produce. These classic breeds include Jersey buff, bourbon red, standard bronze and narragansett, among others, with plumage as colorful as their names and hearty flavor as rich as their heritage.

Most heritage breeds originated in the United States and were featured on Thanksgiving dinner tables long before they were displaced by the introduction of the broad breasted white and industrial farming. Through the efforts of Slow Food USA, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy and other groups, they are slowly regaining popularity and are available in limited supply. They’re not yet regulated, so any bird other than a broad breasted white could be dubbed “heritage.” It’s best to know your provider and ask questions. These birds tend to be leaner, so it’s important to avoid over-cooking them.

Organic: Raised with no antibiotics, no growth enhancers, no pesticides or chemicals, and only organic feed, organic turkeys are considered to be healthier and tastier than the conventional turkeys. Look for the green and white circular USDA Organic label. Organic turkeys can be either broad breasted white or heritage.

Free-range: A legal definition, this term requires that the birds have access to the outdoors, which doesn’t have to be a pasture – it could just be dirt or gravel.

It’s also helpful to understand two other terms.

Pastured: This is a new, non-regulated definition which goes a step beyond free-range in that these birds have had access to grass.

Natural: This terms simply means that the bird contains no added ingredients, has not been injected with flavors or brining, and has been minimally processed.

Disappointing stakeholder dialogue

Research in hand, I engaged in a dialogue with a key stakeholder for our annual family gathering – my sister, who scores a trifecta in the stakeholder realm, serving as hostess, head of procurement and executive chef. I shared the findings from this investigation into our supply chain with her last month.

Despite the evidence that a locally-sourced, pasture-raised heritage turkey incurs lower Scope 2 emissions, supports local suppliers, contributes to genetic diversity and contains no chemical additives, she was unconvinced and plans to serve her freebie broad breasted white bird. Why? None of these issues were material to her.

Had I begun this quest with stakeholder input and a materiality analysis, the two issues that ranked highest with my most important stakeholder would immediately have become apparent: cost and convenience. The research left her unmoved. It appears that we will again dine on a broad breasted white Butterball.

Maybe if I engage in robust stakeholder dialogue over the next year, she’ll be ready for a change by next Thanksgiving. I could even offer to provide a second, more sustainable heritage turkey to serve in addition to her industrially-farmed fare.

Where to find a sustainable turkey

For those who are ready now for a more responsible personal supply chain, here are some ways to obtain a sustainable turkey.

  • Heritage Foods USA ships USDA certified heritage turkeys raised in Kansas by Frank Reese, a well-known American poultry breeder.

  • Dean & DeLuca, the venerable up-scale New York grocer, will deliver a frozen all-natural, free-range turkey to your doorstep. Regional turkey options are available at their retail locations.

  • Dartagnan ships organic, free-range and even wild turkeys, and provides detailed information on each bird, including the exact grains or types of grass it was fed.

  • Local Harvest is an interactive website that connects consumers with local farmers and farm markets that offer heritage and organic poultry.

  • Eat Wild lists 1,400 pasture-based farms and ranches which provide pasture-raised turkey, as well as other types of poultry and meat.

  • Eat Well Guide Use this online guide to find organic and sustainable food sources in your area.
Image credits: 1) Flickr/Ruocaled 2) Flickr/Andrea Westmoreland
Cindy Mehallow

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

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