Organic Turkeys: Are They Really Worth The Cost?

Fresh, organic, pasture-fed turkeys are more than double the cost of the regular factory-farmed variety. But once you hear what's in those grocery-store staple birds, you may find the price jump worth it.

By now many of you have already shelled out the green for your Thanksgiving turkey. If you want a fresh, pasture-fed, organic bird like I do, you shelled out a whole lot of it.

This year, a regular ol’ factory farmed, fresh (never frozen), bird will run you about $2.79 per pound in San Diego. A free-range turkey goes for $3.99 per pound, and an organic, pasture-fed turkey is $5.49 per pound.

Not sure you can justify the extra cash? Let’s not forget that food is medicine, and it’s what your entire system runs on. But how does the whole cost benefit analysis actually break down for poultry?

First of all, consider fresh versus previously frozen or frozen turkey. Natural grocery giant Whole Foods’ website informs shoppers that, “USDA guidelines allow use of the word 'fresh' only when turkey has never been stored at a temperature below 26 degrees Farenheit (minus 3 degrees Celsius) … Additives like sodium erythorbate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and salt are not allowed on fresh turkey, and that's a major health advantage for you.”

Whole Foods also goes on to encourage buying a certified organic turkey, one that’s given feed without “unwanted contaminants.” I bet they do, says the cynic with the price tag in their hand. But what kind of contaminants?

Well, poultry that’s fed a diet high in grain and corn, like factory-farmed (the usual grocery store variety) turkey is, ingests incredibly high amounts of pesticides and genetically modified food. These grains contain very little of what turkeys are naturally meant to eat and can also contain garbage and unhealthy meat by-products. Although these cheap feed grains mean that meat and dairy prices are lower for consumers, they also result in lower nutritional content. In general, grain-fed meat, eggs and dairy are lower in omega-3 fatty acids (the “good” fat), and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA (CLA’s help to fight against cancer and cardiovascular disease), with higher levels of fat than products from animals raised on grass.

Also, pesticides are known to “bioaccumulate” (or build up) in the fatty tissues of animals, and when these animals are eaten, the pesticide buildup may be transmitted to the consumer. This exposure to pesticides increases people’s risk of developing cancer, and is also known to have long-term effects on our reproductive, nervous and immune systems. The nonprofit organization Breastcancer.org recommends staying away from these chemicals that cause female farm workers to have a higher risk of breast cancer, and opt for organic food—especially meats, dairy, and certain fruits and veggies.

In addition, to combat the unhealthy living conditions of the ridiculously close quarters on factory farms, a range of antibiotics are also added to the birds’ feed and water. Turns out it's pretty unhealthy for a bird to spend its whole life in a giant warehouse, so close to the thousands of other birds there it can barely move and eating food products it was never meant to eat. But rather than provide these animals with more sanitary living conditions or a proper diet, these operations simply feed their cows a steady stream of antibiotics, causing our population to become more and more resistant to antibiotics as well as being linked to a host of other problems regulating yeasts in the body.

Finally, additives to boost production and the company’s bottom line are also added to the birds’ feed and water. Among those commonly used is arsenic (which can cause a variety of health problems in humans, including warts, sore throat, cancer and poisoning). Arsenic is used to promote growth and prevent disease, but after this poisonous substance has been consumed by poultry, it ends up in their meat, their feces and eventually in water supplies near the poultry farm.

This is why Whole Foods encourages buying poultry with access to pasture, saying, “The words 'free ranging' or 'free roaming' as allowed on labeling by the USDA do not provide enough assurance about turkey quality since poultry are only required to have access to the outside in order for these terms to be used on packaging labels. Access to the outside might not involve any natural pasture access whatsoever or any reasonable or healthy outdoor lifestyle for the turkey. So look for organic turkey that is described as 'pasture fed,' or contact the producer to find out exactly how their birds are treated.”

Going back to cost, if you don’t have the money for something, no one knows better than I, you just don’t have it (hear that credit card companies?)! But I would suggest, as comedian Bill Maher does, that eating bad food is costlier in the long run than any hundred-dollar turkey. When you compare the price difference for organic poultry vs the health care costs of getting cancer in America, organics win every time. An organic pasture-fed Thanksgiving: It’s good for the bird, good for the country.

Abi Cotler O'Roarty November 23, 2011 at 05:46 PM
I, too, am very impressed by this! Perhaps if more families tried this method there would be more appreciation for and awareness of where food comes from and how that life before your table can effect your own life for a good long time.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty November 23, 2011 at 05:54 PM
I'm so sorry this happened to you and am glad you lived to make some changes. Perhaps stories like these will help others read more labels and be more aware of what goes into what they put into their body. Here's to labels!
Abi Cotler O'Roarty November 23, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Well said Againsthegrain, thanks for reading and adding to this conversation with so much knowledge once again!
Lisa Stroyan December 09, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Earlene, my son has a extreme sensitivity to glutamate (not just MSG but all free glutamate) including most things on this list: http://truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html), so I understand how frustrating this is, and I'm so sorry to hear of your experience. But I would take issue with one thing that you said, that it doesn't matter what poultry eats. Poultry fed with traditionally sprayed grain accumulates significant amounts of arsenic, and arsenic impacts the NMDA (glutamate) receptors (http://www.springerlink.com/content/yxw6243h27221335/). Also arsenic is a toxin which, though I don't have data, must put a strain on the detoxification systems of the body, which I believe increases glutamate toxicity. (Here's one link of how everything is related...heartfixer.com/AMRI-Outcomes-Non-CV-Autism-Methyl Cycle.htm) . This isn't just theoretical to me; my son had concerning levels of arsenic in his hair until we removed most conventional poultry. It does get expensive. My solution has been to make sure we use everything of the bird we can. I serve the bird, then pick off all the meat that is left and use that in other dishes, then I make broth with the rest. Just be careful because cooking broth too long does break down proteins and will produce some naturally occuring glutamate, though we have not ever seen a reaction to such low levels. -- Lisa
Earlene December 10, 2011 at 03:05 AM
Lisa, the average shopper would not know this and you've experienced what you've laid out and I thank you.


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