The last few years have seen the rise of the ethical consumer. Increasingly, shoppers want to know what's in their food, where it came from, and how it was treated—and rightly so.
However, shopping for products that tick all the necessary boxes is already harder than it needs to be. Throw Thanksgiving into the mix, including all the associated foodstuffs, and it's not surprising that most of us just give up and buy the biggest, cheapest turkey available.
However, for those determined to have a carbon-neutral, ethically sourced, and healthy Thanksgiving, there are options available. Just be aware that when it comes to a guilt-free Thanksgiving, as with most things, the devil is in the details.
Join the Humane League
There is no getting around the fact that mass-produced turkeys are not treated well. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to horrify you with a blow-by-blow account of battery farming pratices. But, many people would argue that affordable poultry has a hidden cost most of us are unaware of.
Now, suppose you don’t want a side order of guilt with your turkey breast. What are your options? Fortunately, organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) provide standards and certifications for the humane treatment of farm animals.
The ASPCA endorses the Certified Humane standards and requirements. Products bearing this badge of approval are readily available in most grocery stores. Although consumers may rest easy in the knowledge that food awarded the Certified Humane seal of approval is treated better than most, the organization does allow for farming practices some would still find objectionable.
The Animal Welfare Institute follows a far more stringent set of requirements when it comes to its Animal Welfare Approved program. Turkeys that are certified by the AWI are far harder to come by, as the organization only approves animals available from independent, family owned and run farms. The good news is that a number of these farms now ship turkey and other meats nationwide.
Celebrate Our Heritage
It may surprise some to hear that commonly available domesticated turkeys are nothing like the majestic beasts the pilgrims first encountered. The birds we consume are Broad Breasted Whites and, in case the name didn't tip you off, they are favored by commercial farms for their large breast size.
Those looking for the genuine Thanksgiving experience should seek out Heirloom (or "heritage") turkeys. While not technically wild, these turkeys share many characteristics with their free-born brethren.
A number of independent farms sell ethically raised and slaughtered heirloom turkeys, but be warned: they can cost a pretty penny. A 10-pound heirloom turkey will cost somewhere in the region of $100.
Savor the Soy
Most vegetarians don't consider Thanksgiving traditions a valid excuse to tuck into some bird flesh. For those unwilling to compromise their ethics for the sake of a few minutes of gastronomic bliss, there are a number of turkey substitutes.
Soy-based meat substitutes like tofu-turkey (commonly branded "Tofurky") are the most obvious choice. These purportedly provide a similar texture and meaty taste similar to the real thing, though an informal office survey indicates that they taste terrible. And there's another fly in the ointment: There is some significant debate as to the environmental impact of soy farming. So choose your poison: kill a turkey or potentially kill the planet.
At this point, it's looking like the only foolproof way to have an earth-friendly Thanksgiving is to serve a vegetable-based entree. Some of your guests may be disappointed, but you can serve it in the knowledge that it's completely ethical and completely healthy... right?
As consumers, we have a tendency to take certain things for granted, not least of all Certified Organic labels. While the idea of organic food sounds healthy and environmentally friendly, there is currently no evidence that organic food is better for us than regular old processed, chemical-rich produce. Organic food does adhere to a set number of requirements, but contrary to popular misconceptions, certain pesticides are permitted in organic farming.
Additionally, advances in modern farming mean that we are able to use less land for greater crop yields than ever before. Organic farming, on the other hand, is less efficient, requiring more land, and therefore has a greater environmental impact in some senses.
We aren't suggesting that you should shy away from organic food entirely. As more time and money is invested in organic practices, they will undoubtedly become more efficient and carbon-neutral. But for now, you should strive to be aware of all the potential trade-offs when you're spending your money.
Grow Your Own
A sure-fire way to know exactly where your food is coming from is to grow and/or rear it yourself.
While out of the question for most urbanites, growing your own vegetables and rearing your own livestock all but guarantees an ethical Thanksgiving—assuming, of course, that you are an ethical person to begin with.
Growing vegetables is one thing, but it's only part of the ethical eating puzzle. For the truly determined, the option to raise turkeys at home does exist.
While the idea may sound romantic, be aware that turkey rearing is hard work. Heritage breeds in particular require specific food, medicine, shelter, and attention. These are not animals you can throw in the backyard and forget about. Furthermore, you have to live with the knowledge that at some point—assuming you don't lose your nerve—the animal you've cared for is going to end up on your dinner table.
[Hero image: Flickr user "magtravels"]