Contributing Author: Katherine Walla
Thanksgiving tables may miss an American icon this year: families across the United States are ditching conventionally raised turkeys, instead featuring turkeys raised with best practices or even plant-based alternatives to meat.
Preferences for healthier, traceable food produced by transparent companies are on the rise nationally. A 2017 survey by Cargill revealed that 88 percent of consumers agreed that brands need to be transparent about the ways they produce food, and 80 percent of consumers specify that at Thanksgiving, they find it important to buy a turkey from a family farmer using safe and sustainable practices.
Consumers prefer free-range, naturally raised turkeys, particularly during the holiday season: natural and organic turkeys raised by transparent producers generated 153 percent more in dollar sales on a weekly average leading up to Thanksgiving, in comparison to average weekly dollar sales throughout the year. Typically smaller in size—less than 14 pounds on average—these turkeys are changing the stereotypical Thanksgiving table.
“People are starting to understand it’s not natural to grow turkeys up to 30 pounds,” Ariane Daguin, co-founder and owner of D’Artagnan LLC, a wholesale and e-commerce food company told Bloomberg. “In general, that means they were penned up with no room to move around, and that’s why they’re fat like that.”
Consumers are also turning away from turkey in the wake of a salmonella outbreak across the turkey industry, which sickened at least 164 people during the past year. The USDA recently recalled over 90,000 pounds of ground turkey after sample testing. While salmonella contamination is less common in whole birds, the Center for Disease Control still advises Thanksgiving cooks to take health precautions such as cooking products thoroughly.
Overall whole turkey purchases leading up to Thanksgiving dropped, from 305 million pounds in 2011 to 270 million in 2015, and sales of kale, collard greens, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, and even tofu have risen, suggesting a transition to plant-based Thanksgiving meals.
According to Nielsen, 39 percent of Americans skipped meat protein at last year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Plant-based alternative products skyrocketed at an annual growth rate of 62 percent from 2013 to 2017, a rise often attributed to Millennials who are nearly three times more likely to try meat substitutes. Food companies are releasing creative alternatives to the roasted turkey geared toward a new plant-based consumer base, including tofu and vegetable-based roasts.
“The whole bird is not necessarily on everyone’s Thanksgiving table the way it used to be,” said Russ Whitman, a senior vice president at commodity researcher Urner-Barry.
Americans choosing to forego the Thanksgiving turkey may do so not only for health reasons, but also environmental reasons. Each year, consumers waste about 200 million pounds of turkey over Thanksgiving week. And, according to a study led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, cooking a Thanksgiving dinner in most states emits over 40 pounds of carbon dioxide. In states with energy resources that emit higher rates of carbon dioxide, such as West Virginia, dinner can require 80 pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of driving 100 miles in an average car.
If you prepare extra meals, consider locating a local food bank to donate excess food this holiday season.