Thanksgiving Without Turkey? A Valid Argument For Skipping The Bird.

There are ample reasons you may not want to serve a turkey at your feast. Experts offer ways to create a new holiday tradition.

If you’re having turkey at your Thanksgiving, Karen Davis is not the guest you want at your table.

The president of United Poultry Concerns and a tireless advocate for chickens, turkeys and other farmed fowl, Davis can rattle off details and statistics about how turkeys are raised and “harvested” (industry-speak for slaughtered) that are guaranteed to curb — or kill — your appetite. But she’ll settle for three big reasons to skip the turkey this Thanksgiving: “Animal cruelty, disease, filth — the toxic waste in the conditions in which the birds are forced to live.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, close to 230 million turkeys were slaughtered in 2018 ― more than the number of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 right now. Food production on that scale doesn’t happen in an idyllic farm setting; it happens in concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs). The Environmental Protection Agency mandates a small CAFO be limited to 16,500 turkeys, while a large one can hold 55,000 or more.

At Davis’ sanctuary in Virginia — Tyson and Perdue territory — turkeys and chickens run free. “Turkeys like to run. They’re great walkers. But turkeys bred for the turkey meat industry are so disproportioned, with this big, heavy breast. Their toenails are cut off so they can’t grip the ground well,” she said. And anyway, there’s nowhere for them to go. Their brief lives are spent confined “beak to butt.”

A whole lot of turkeys in a single cramped space produce a staggering amount of waste. “Imagine 10,000 birds in a factory building. Imagine those massive factory buildings, one after the other. Imagine if you could see that, could hear that, could smell that,” said Samantha Ragsdale, senior director of education and research at Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization. Smell? Oh, yeah. “Factory warehouses are full of ammonia,” she added. “That concentration of animal urine and feces is toxic to the animals themselves, to the workers, and it’s all ultimately seeping into our groundwater.”

“People don’t understand,” Davis said. “Suffering and sickness are linked. Cruelty and contamination are linked.” She can connect the dots for you in grisly detail, but suffice it to say, it’s not nice for the turkeys.

It’s not nice for you, either. That stomach flu you get over the holidays? It may not be the flu, according to Davis. It could potentially be foodborne illness from eating undercooked turkey contaminated with salmonella, Campylobacter or E. coli. “Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea — they’re bacterial infections. You put yourself at risk,” she added.

A far cry from the way we usually see turkeys at the Thanksgiving table, a turkey is served a kale dinner at the 2018 "Honoring of the Turkeys" at Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization.
Luke Hess
A far cry from the way we usually see turkeys at the Thanksgiving table, a turkey is served a kale dinner at the 2018 "Honoring of the Turkeys" at Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization.

Well, you say, United Poultry Concerns and Farm Sanctuary are animal advocacy organizations; of course they’re going to try to take away my Thanksgiving turkey. But the risk of foodborne illness is real. According to the USDA, 48 million people get food poisoning every year, a million from salmonella alone. A quarter of those cases are traced to tainted chicken or turkey.

If all of this is giving you pause about cooking a turkey this year, no worries — there are other options. “We have so may other marvelous choices that don’t cause suffering,” Davis said. “We can do and be so much better.” So let’s not yuck your yum. Let’s talk about how to do this:

  • If you’ve been hosting the same crowd for years, your guests will be expecting the same menu, especially since the pandemic has canceled so many celebrations. Give guests a heads-up beforehand. Help dial down their anxiety, and get them excited to be part of a new, progressive, turkey-free Thanksgiving tradition.

  • Instead of turkey, feature dishes with corn, cranberries and other native foods served at that first Thanksgiving feast. And you’re in luck, “A Gathering Basket, a multimedia multi-series cookbook of Indigenous recipes from I-Collective, was just released. Catch “Gather,” a new Netflix film about Indigenous food sovereignty, too.

  • Turkey isn’t the only holiday entree. Davis and Ragsdale each make their own version of shepherd’s pie (without sheep). They’re umami, hearty, filling and Instagram-worthy. Davis’ recipe, which has lentils for meatiness and protein, goes by the adorable name of Mrs. Gobblegood’s golden brown pie.

  • Worried you’ll miss that apocryphal post-feast tryptophan high? Fear not, there’s tryptophan galore in dairy, so butter up those mashed potatoes and put another dollop of whipped cream on that pumpkin pie. Tryptophan, that essential happy-making amino acid, is also found in seeds, oats and something else enjoyed at that first Thanksgiving feast — nuts.

  • If you want to keep turkey a tradition at your Thanksgiving, don’t eat it — adopt it through a place like Farm Sanctuary, or become a turkey guardian through The Gentle Barn.

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