Ask Eartha: The environmentalist’s guide to buying a Thanksgiving turkey |

Ask Eartha: The environmentalist’s guide to buying a Thanksgiving turkey

The Narragansett turkey is one of many heritage breeds.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

This is my year to host the family Thanksgiving. In preparation I went to the store to scope out a turkey. I have to admit, I feel completely overwhelmed when it comes to all of the different labels. There are organic turkeys, natural turkeys, heritage breed turkeys and more. What does it all really mean, and what is actually important?

— Chloe, Breckenridge

Thanksgiving is a great time for food awareness. There are a lot of different labels being tossed around at the grocery store these days. What does “organic,” “natural,” “heritage breed,” “local” or “sustainable” really mean? It’s enough to make you crazy, even before the in-laws arrive.

Let’s start with greenwashing, a term coined in 1986 by the New York environmental journalist Jay Westervelt. It’s like the old term whitewashing, but it’s done with a green brush. Greenwashing is used to describe adverting techniques that make a product sound more environmentally friendly than it really is. You may have seen products in the store whose labels say things like “green,” “eco,” “clean,” “pure,” “natural,” “fresh” or other non-certified claims.

Unfortunately, the manufacturers are usually not offering you anything other than a fancy label — that goes for turkeys and other Thanksgiving fixings, too. The misleading claims can create a false sense of security in the consumer. If you are unsure about how legitimate a claim of greenness really is, just stop and look beyond the ad. Check out the ingredient list or learn more about the manufacturer. Visit to learn more about greenwashing and how to avoid it.

Now let’s get into the real meat of Thanksgiving. You may have seen turkeys advertised with wording such as “organic,” “heritage breed,” “free range,” “non-GMO” and “no antibiotics.” Making such claims holds a business more accountable than if it simply stated that its product is green. If it’s falsely advertising then there can be harsh consequences. Organizations, like the nonprofits CorpWatch, keep tabs on big business and report false advertising to the government.

For a bird to be considered certified organic it must meet several different requirements. It cannot ever be treated with antibiotics or any sort of growth-enhancing drugs. It must be fed an organic diet and have access to the outdoors. Most grocers offer at least one organic option at this time of year. Organic turkeys can be of a heritage breed or of the standard Broadbreasted White breed.

Ninety-nine percent of all turkeys raised in America are Broadbrested Whites. A monoculture of turkeys, or anything else, is very unsafe. It puts a majority of a population, in this case turkeys, at risk. Turkeys so genetically similar means they are more vulnerable to the same parasites and diseases, resulting in a potential die-out of an entire operation. It is much healthier and more natural to have genetic diversity in a population.

That is where heritage breeds come in. These are the minorities that are slowly becoming more accessible to the public. The Midget White and the Bourbon Red are both very tasty heritage breed options. Heritage breed birds are raised outdoors and eat significantly more forage than the average American turkey. For this reason, most people who buy heritage breeds praise the birds’ superior flavor and texture compared with conventionally raised breeds. You can get a heritage breed turkey through Natural Grocers in Dillon.

There are several other legitimate certifications to look for while prepping for Thanksgiving. Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Food-Alliance Certified and American Grassfed all are third-party certifiers that are watching your back when it comes to turkeys.

Knowing the difference between greenwashing and legitimate certifications will keep you informed as you get ready for the holiday. It also makes for some great Thanksgiving dinner conversations.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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