Thanksgiving is almost here, and with our pantries and refrigerators groaning under the weight of turkey and pies, cranberry sauce and yams, it might not feel like the most appetizing time to start delving into questions of food safety and the healthiness of the U.S. food supply. But the growing visibility of animal-rights groups and food activists have made it harder to ignore the elephant in the kitchen.
Certainly, we've been hearing the warnings. The Great Pumpkin Shortage of 2009, for example, hinted at just how easily a staple of Thanksgiving dinner can be derailed. After all, 85% of America's pumpkin comes from Morton, Ill., while the vast majority of the country's cranberries come from Wisconsin, North Carolina provides most of our yams, and the majority of turkeys are from Arkansas. One bad storm, a drought, or a regional outbreak of a crop disease can mean the difference between most of the nation enjoying a traditional favorite, or making do with a substitute.
And, with concerns about climate change rising, so too are worries that the Thanksgiving table may be in danger.
Food producers are also coming under more scrutiny. Attacks on additives like high fructose corn syrup are nothing new, but various dangerous and exploitative production practices are also coming to light. Just over a week ago, Mercy for Animals, an animal rights group, posted a YouTube video that purports to show some fairly disturbing footage from Butterball factory farms in North Carolina.
Warning: Watching the video below might result in you wanting to make a last-minute substitution in your Thanksgiving menu.
In response to numerous calls, Butterball's PR manager Stephanie Llorente stated that:
Upon learning of these new concerns, we immediately initiated an internal investigation and suspended the associates in question. Pending the completion of that investigation, Butterball will then make a determination on additional actions including immediate termination for those involved. Animal care and well-being is central to the operations of our company, and we remain committed to the ethical and responsible care of our turkey flocks.
While Butterball's response sounds reassuring, it doesn't dispute the veracity of Mercy For Animals' video or counter the group's claims that the the cruelty depicted in the clip is part of an ongoing pattern. Moreover, while firing the employees in question is reasonable, the videos also featured diseased animals living in filthy, cramped conditions -- a problem that Butterball failed to acknowledge.
Making a Healthier Thanksgiving
So with all these factors threatening your Thanksgiving festivities, what can you do -- apart from resorting to tofu turkey surprise?
Several companies offer less dangerous and exploitative versions of your Thanksgiving favorites. They tend to cost a bit more; however, with a bit of planning, it's possible to enjoy a less-cruel, more responsible holiday without burning a hole in your wallet. Here are some options:
• Turkey: According to the USDA, the retail price of a basic turkey was $1.62 a pound in September, but in the stores near my office, the prices were a bit higher, ranging between $1.79 and $1.89 a pound. On the other hand, prices for free-range, vegetarian, non-antibiotic turkey started at $2.49 a pound at the local Whole Foods -- almost a 40% premium. In terms of the cost for a 14-pound bird, this works out to just under $10 extra.
Verdict: Then again, after watching Mercy For Animals' video, $10 extra may be a bargain.
• Cranberry Sauce: Let other people argue about the superiority of cranberry relish made fresh on the stove; there's nothing quite like a quivering slab of jellied cranberry sauce to complete a turkey dinner. Unfortunately, that canned sauce often comes loaded with a decidedly non-traditional ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.
While there have been extensive arguments about HFCS over the last few years, a recent Princeton University study found that animals that consume HFCS gain substantially more weight than animals that consume a comparable amount of sugar.
If you're hoping to enjoy jellied cranberry sauce without worrying about HFCS, you may be in luck: while prices varied widely, every store I visited had some version of organic cranberry sauce, which uses cane sugar. The most expensive was at a local grocery store, which charged $3.29 per can -- almost twice as much as the cheapest cranberry sauce, and 65% more than Ocean Spray, the name brand. On the other hand, Whole Foods had an organic version of jellied cranberries for just $1.99 -- the same price as Ocean Spray.
Verdict: When it comes to flavor and healthiness, the difference between HFCS and sugar is huge. Even at the biggest markup, the extra $1.30 per can is a bargain.
• Yams: If you're planning to eat canned yams, going organic is fairly easy. Bruce's Yams, one of the country's major producers, offers an organic option made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The price difference depended on the store, and ranged from a 73% markup at the local grocer to 32% at Whole Foods. In terms of actual price, this worked out to $2.50 for a 16-ounce can at Whole Foods, versus $5.99 for a 29-ounce can.
Verdict: Even in its normal yams, Bruce's doesn't use HFCS, so the health differential between the two choices may be a wash. If you're obsessive about buying organic, the extra couple of bucks may be worth it; otherwise, you're probably just as well off with the less expensive option.
• Pumpkin: If the idea of another Illinois storm wiping out the pumpkin harvest has you waking up in a cold sweat, take heart: Organic pumpkins, most of which are grown in Oregon, are produced in smaller quantities, and offer a nice hedge against a pie-less Thanksgiving table.
Unfortunately, that security comes at a high price. Whole Foods was the only store in my area that had organic pumpkin, and a can of the stuff cost almost four times as much as ordinary Illinois pumpkin. For a couple of pies, the price tag can be pretty striking.
Verdict: Most of the flavor in pumpkin pies comes from the combination of spices that get mixed into the filling. If you're obsessed about monocultures and organic food, it may be worthwhile to pay the extra few dollars for the good stuff; otherwise, save your money.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.