Free-Range Feast : Health Food Stores Are Gobbling Up Turkeys Raised Without Additives


It’s Shelton Poultry President Gary Flanagan’s business to talk turkey. A mere 110,000 of his birds will wind up on dinner tables by the end of the holiday season, he says, but that’s enough to corner the health food market in Southern California.

The Pomona-based company raises free-range poultry without antibiotics, growth hormones or other drugs, one of only a handful of such companies across the nation and the only one in Southern California.

Flanagan says demand for his Thanksgiving turkeys, which are mainly sold in health food specialty stores, has been increasing 15% a year.

Ten years ago, he had a flock of 5,000. By the end of 1995, he expects to sell 110,000 turkeys to stores in California and the West. Shelton Poultry’s $10-million in sales last year included 100,000 turkeys, 600,000 chickens and 15,000 ducks.


The company’s turkeys cost about $1 more per pound than commercially grown birds, which account for more than 99% of the 21 million turkeys raised in California. But health-conscious customers don’t seem to mind paying a higher price for the once-a-year dinner, Flanagan said.

Robert Thompson, manager of Wild Oats, a health food store in Pasadena, said orders for Shelton Poultry free-range turkeys increased from 380 last year to 425 as of Tuesday.

“I hope we don’t have to turn anybody away, " he said.

Michael Maynard, director of marketing for Alacer Corp., a health food research group based in Irvine, said that over the past five years, health food industry sales have increased 60% nationwide. As more consumers become health-conscious, he said, marketers of alternative foods such as organic grains or free-range turkeys have profited.

The free-range turkeys have less fat and a tighter muscle formation, developed as a result of plentiful exercise. Health food supermarket managers say the hormone-free birds have a more natural taste, though some people who have tried the turkeys say they are tougher than other birds.

Big poultry companies raise their turkeys inside giant climate-controlled buildings that have curtains to let in sunlight. The birds get limited exercise in enclosures that are usually 1,000 feet by 100 feet.

“It’s the most efficient way,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Industry Federation.

Flanagan’s turkeys, by contrast, are raised on six ranches around Fresno, where they roam around on up to 80 acres.

“It’s a more holistic approach,” said Wendy King, manager of Jimbo’s Naturally, a health food store with two locations in San Diego County.

Shelton Poultry is one of only a handful of turkey companies left in Southern California, but none of them raise their flocks here anymore.

Flanagan moved his birds to the Central Valley 10 years ago to save on the cost of transporting the turkeys to processing plants in Fresno. Because half his turkeys are sold in California, Fresno’s central location is a convenient distribution point, he said.

Like Flanagan, dozens of dairy and poultry growers from Southern California have moved their operations to Central California over the past decade, said Bob Krauter, assistant manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation. Lower land prices, access to processing facilities found only in the area and to farming supplies make the San Joaquin Valley more farmer-friendly.

With all the commercial turkey growers in Southern California moving to the Central Valley, Krauter said, the only turkey growing done in the Southland is small back-yard flocks raised by individuals.

Turkey production has declined in California over the years, but Flanagan said he will expand his turkey flock to 125,000 in 1996. As long as the natural food industry keeps growing, he says, he sees a bright future for free-range poultry.

“We’ve been getting more calls this year from stores wanting to know about the free-range birds,” he said.


Talking Turkey

Those planning to gobble up turkey and all the fixings today will have paid more for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal than they did in 1994. At $29.64, this year’s average meal cost is the highest ever in the 10 years the American Farm Bureau Federation has surveyed holiday prices using its current menu. The price, which is about $1.25 more than last year’s $28.40, includes turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, peas, rolls with butter, cranberries, a relishdish, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages or coffee. In this year’s survey, 78 volunteer shoppers in 29 states reported turkey prices that ranged from a low of 38 cents per pound to a high of $1.19 per pound.


Average prices for the elements of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people for this year and last:


Menu 1994 1995 Turkey $12.01 $12.68 Stuffing 2.26 2.39 Pumpkin pie mix 1.36 1.36 Pie shell 1.27 1.29 Sweet potatoes 1.62 1.73 Rolls 1.09 1.24 Peas 1.01 1.04 Carrots/Celery .58 .61 Milk 2.30 2.29 Cranberries 1.86 1.95 Whipped cream .71 .74 Misc.* 2.32 2.32


* Includes coffee, onions, eggs, sugar, flour, evaporated milk and butter.


The price for the whole package for 10 people (including dessert and a beverage) is about $1.25 more than it was last holiday season:

(Year: Price)

1995: $29.64


Turkey consumption has remained relatively stable for the last six years, despite the myriad products now made from turkey.

Per capita consumption, in pounds


Year Turkey Beef Pork Chicken 1988 15.7 72.64 52.46 58.80 1989 16.6 69.30 52.00 59.30 1990 17.6 67.80 49.80 61.50 1991 18.0 66.80 50.40 64.00 1992 18.0 66.50 53.10 67.80 1993 17.9 65.10 52.40 70.30 1994 18.0 67.50 55.10 71.50 1995** 18.5 68.10 53.50 73.00


** Estimated


Ordering out for Thanksgiving can get pricey, with charges doubling the cost of a home-cooked meal in some cases. Prices for Thanksgiving meals cooked to order***:

(Store: Price)

Lucky: $34.99

Hughes: 37.99

Von’s: 39.00

Mrs. Gooch’s: 59.99

Gelsons: 69.99

*** Most include turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetable, cranberry sauce and dessert, and feed six to 10 people.

Having someone else cook your meal and set the table is costlier still. Prices for Thanksgiving meals at selected restaurants, per meal:

(Restaurant: Price)

Denny’s: $6.99

Marie Callender’s: 15.95

Cafe Bizou: 19.95

Pacific Dining Car: 27.95

Patina: 48.00

Note: Prices do not include tax, tip or drinks.


The number of turkeys produced in California, which ranks as the fifth-largest turkey producer in the nation, has dropped in the last five years, while the number grown nationally has increased: (see newspaper for chart)

1994 (In millions)

Number of turkeys produced in California: 21.0

Number of turkeys produced nationally: 289.2

Sources: American Farm Bureau Federation, California Department of Food and Agriculture, industry sources, National Turkey Federation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, wire reports

Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times