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Why the Biggest Thanksgiving Lie May Be the Turkey on Your Table

As our food has become more processed and industrialized, so has Thanksgiving dinner. Sadly, it's the turkey itself that has changed the most since the time of the Pilgrims.

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We all know that, however turkeys feel about the fourth Thursday in November, it sure ain't thankful. Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States' Factory Farming Campaign, underscores this, saying that the vast majority of America's turkeys are subject to "a painful life and a painful death." Turkeys changed from their wild ancestors with domestication, but during the 20th century, the vast majority of American turkeys (about 20 percent of whom are eaten on Thanksgiving) took a turn toward freakish.

Domesticated turkeys took a long and circuitous route to go from Mexico to Europe and back across the Atlantic to New England. But their strange journey did not end there, as American breeders tinkered with them in the early- to mid-20th century, first developing the Broad-Breasted Bronze and later switching to the Broad-Breasted White, a similarly fast-growing and large-breasted breed that lacked the dark pinfeathers of bronze turkeys, providing better aesthetics. Even before the switch from bronze to white, commercial turkeys were no longer physically able to mate naturally. Artificial insemination "solved" that problem beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Reese, one of the most successful and famous turkey farmers in the U.S., says that as commercial breeders came up with more physical problems associated with the birds' fast growth, they came up with more and more ways of dealing with it, from artificial insemination to antibiotics to confinement.

The commercial breed satisfies the American demand for breast meat and agribusiness' demand for fast growth, but does so at the expense of the turkey truly being a viable animal that can survive and reproduce. The Broad-Breasted Whites who receive presidential pardons have gone to Disneyland to peacefully live out the remainder of their lives since 2005, but as of last Thanksgiving, half of the pardoned turkeys did not survive long enough to celebrate a second Thanksgiving. According to Reese, the birds are engineered to die. Shapiro put it differently, saying that commercial turkeys are "bred to suffer." The path to humane turkey isn't a better habitat or organic feed: It's in the genes.

Reese, who has raised turkeys for over 50 years, raises standard turkey breeds that have not changed to meet commercial needs over the course of the 20th century or beyond. His turkeys, like their ancestors, gain about a pound a week, taking 24 to 28 weeks (six to seven months) to reach slaughter weights. When dressed, his hens weigh 14 to 16 pounds and his toms (male turkeys) weigh 18 to 22 pounds. "That was the standard 50 years ago," he says.

But today, commercial birds grow at double that rate. Reese is interested in the nutritional difference between his turkeys and your average Butterball, saying that he's tested his chicken and found they contain significantly more protein and less fat compared to commercial breeds (even when the commercial breeds are raised free-range and organically).

While Reese is perhaps the best-known farmer who raises standard breeds of turkey (now commonly referred to as "heritage breeds"), he is not the only one. Around the country, many farmers are raising Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, Standard Bronze, and other heritage breeds of turkey. Typically, they produce smaller birds (ranging from 10 to 20 pounds) with less white meat than those you'd find at the supermarket and charge between $4 and $5 (and sometimes as much as $7 or $8) per pound. At $4.50 per pound, a 16-pound bird would cost $72, compared to $5 or $8 for the same size bird at the supermarket. Is it worth it? Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of the book Righteous Porkchop, says that people who try her turkeys routinely tell her, "That was the best turkey I ever had!" As a once or twice a year splurge for a holiday, many feel that it's well worth it.

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