11/17/08

Free Range Turkey

Another post from the "archive." I originally published this right before last Thanksgiving. It's been getting a lot of hits lately, no doubt because it's that time of year again.

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So why not get yourself a free range turkey? Maybe you agree with my last post to the extent that you want to avoid supporting cruelty to animals and you're also, like me, something of a traditionalist. But why go to the trouble of making that complicated (but delicious!) vegetable pie? Why not buy yourself a happy free range turkey?

If that's your plan, your intentions are surely excellent. But the "humane meat" alternative isn't really so simple. First of all, you have to consider where you're planning on getting your happy turkey. If you live in the country, maybe you have a small-scale "humane farm" you can buy from. Michael Pollan describes that kind of farm in this excellent article.

Polyface Farm sounds idyllic, but before you buy, think about how much of a life the turkey got to have. For tender flesh, you have to kill when animals are young. How was the slaughter done? If at an abattoir, then not nicely. There are no laws at all regulating the slaughter of poultry in the U.S.. Even if the butchering is done on site, it's not necessarily done with any kindness. In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (great book!) Pollan describes participating in the killing process at Polyface Farm. Speed seems to be the overriding consideration, not kindness.

More likely, you don't live in the country. Your only option is to purchase a "humane certified" turkey at some place like Whole Foods. By all means this is better than getting the usual "butterball" or whatnot (do have a look at that PETA link if you're not sure). I'm a big fan of Whole Foods and do believe in incremental steps. But when you look into the facts about animal welfare at big organic farms, they're disappointing. Free range chickens and turkeys are stuffed into massive barns. They're not in cages, which is great. If they're "free range," as well as "cage free," then they have access to the out of doors. But this may not be until the bird is many weeks old, and at that point slaughtering day isn't far off. That's the inside story I get from Pollan's book and also from The Ethics of What We Eat, a very informative new book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.

Small farms that can demonstrate truly humane practices are better than big organic. But must you eat a turkey? I'm all for good food, and wouldn't eat a "tofurkey" in a million years. I'm not 100% sure I think eating meat is inherently wrong no matter what. But 95% of what we do to animals in raising them for food is totally repulsive. I'm much happier staying as clear as I can of the whole ugly business.