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Organic turkey can leave a big footprint

Kelly Alexander

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

SCOTT JAGOW: As soon as I get off the air, I'm heading straight for the refrigerator. There's a nice plate of turkey in there waiting to become a sandwich. I think there might be some tofurkey, too, for the vegetarians. Anyway, Americans ate about 46 million turkeys yesterday. And this year, more than ever, people were asking about being green for Thanksgiving. One of the options was to buy organic turkeys -- birds raised on natural feed and no antibiotics. But commentator Kelly Alexander isn't sure those turkeys are all that friendly to the environment.


KELLY ALEXANDER: The epitome of recycling has always been the day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich, when an entire feast is compressed between two slices of bread. Use butternut squash soup as a condiment, add a layer of Brussels sprouts ... You get the idea.

This year, though, I'm factoring in the latest crusade of the responsible -- the carbon footprint. I encourage everyone who eats to think beyond the shrink-wrap and eat local. But in so doing, I made a startling discovery. With annual sales totaling more than 1.5 billion dollars, Butterball is by far the best selling turkey in this country. Yet these turkeys are hatched in an incubator. And then they gorge on a highly fortified corn-based mash while confined in a heated room that is lit 24 hours a day.

In the past 10 years, though, there's been a movement away from industrialized birds toward pasture breeds that have been revived by dedicated farmers. These are heritage turkeys. They are expensive, and often hard to find. I called my Whole Foods to see if I could get one. I was told yes, but that the bird would come from Central California, 2,662 miles from my home in North Carolina.

I then called the Butterball turkey hotline. It turns out that Butterball is owned by a company called Carolina Turkeys, whose headquarters are in El Paso, Texas. Carolina Turkeys has six plants in the South and Midwest. I was told that a fresh Butterball would come from Mount Olive, North Carolina -- 92.3 miles from my door. So, a heritage turkey has almost 29 times the environmental impact as an industrially produced one.

At a time when half of America has gotten into a car or onto a plane to visit the other half, when our collective carbon footprint is deep enough to throw the earth off of its axis, are you doing better to go local and ... buy Butterball? For me, the answer lies in the day-after sandwich. Ask yourself just how good you want it to taste.

JAGOW: Kelly Alexander is a food writer and editor based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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