Turtle Island Foods offers non-GMO verified Tofurky to a growing market

By Arianne Pfoutz

It’s that time of year, when thoughts of holiday turkeys with sage stuffing and cranberry sauce are in the air. It can be a tough time to be vegetarian! Fortunately, non-meat eaters are no longer “second class citizens” at the holiday table, thanks to Tofurky®, a completely meatless feast consisting of a tofu roast, giblet and mushroom gravy and wild rice stuffing, made with organic, non-GMO soybeans. This product and many succulent others are compliments of Turtle Island Foods, a Hood River, OR company that originated thirty years ago from the tempeh-making hobby of Seth Tibbott.

In addition to Tofurky roasts, deli slices, franks and sausages, Turtle Island Foods also manufactures tempeh, a cultured cake made from whole soybeans which has been a staple food in Indonesia for centuries. Turtle Island is the second largest tempeh manufacturer in the country, and recently won a 2009 “Best in Show” award from VegNews Magazine and Sherbrooke Capital’s “Best New Product” award for its tempeh strips.

Throughout a remarkable growth, from one man living in a tree house on $300/month to managing an 8,000 square foot facility with 75 employees, Tibbott has stayed true to his original mission: “creating delicious, vegetarian meat-alternatives that change the way the world eats.”

Meat alternatives for a small planet
Tibbott’s commitment to the vegetarian lifestyle began after reading Francis Moore Lappe’s 1971 classic, Diet for a Small Planet. “It continues to be a revelation to me that it takes 4.7 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of turkey meat, yet it takes only .47 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of Tofurky, he said. “That’s a 10:1 ratio of efficiency.” So in 1980 he founded Turtle Island in Forest Grove, OR, feeling there was a future for nutritious plant-based protein.

The name “Turtle Island” refers to an Ojibwa and Chippewa Indian legend, in which a giant tortoise arose from a water-covered earth to offer its shell as a home for North American land creatures.

Tibbott began manufacturing and marketing tempeh to health food stores along the west coast. In 1982, with financial support from his mother and brother, the company moved to an abandoned schoolhouse in Husum, WA and became a small cottage industry employing three part-time staff. Seth lived in a tree house for the next seven years to get by.

By 1992, the company had become the third largest tempeh manufacturer in the US, and moved across the Columbia River to its current cannery building in Hood River. In 1995, with the invention of Tofurky, the company realized the profits it had been waiting for, and sales have grown sharply since then—doubling between 2003 and 2007.

Thanksgiving dilemma: Tofurky to the rescue!
Teaming with The Higher Taste (a catering company in Portland), the company developed a recipe for the turkey alternative, “Tofurky,” as an answer to vegetarian and vegan prayers for a satisfying Thanksgiving dinner. The complete holiday meal consisted of a stuffed tofu roast, 8 tempeh drummettes and a pint of nutritional yeast gravy. Although it sold for a hefty $30.00, it caught on and United Natural Foods made it available nationwide.

Word of the tasty product made it to the Today Show, and it quickly spread to comedians and talk show hosts, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. The free press amounted to over $1 million in advertising. Deli Slices, Tofurky Jurky and Tofurky Sausages soon followed, making the food a year-round food choice.

Tofurky products account for 90% of Turtle Island’s business and tempeh 10%.

Non-GMO Project verified
From the beginning, Turtle Island Foods has only used organically grown soybeans and adamantly rejects genetically modified organisms.

“When non-GMOs became heard of in the late 1990s, we were one of the first companies to put that on our label,” said Tibbott. “We oppose GMOs due to safety concerns and because they encourage anti-diversity in the food chain. As a naturalist, I see that it’s risky playing God.”

All incoming shipments of soybeans and soybean-based products are tested for GMO contamination. The company has also joined The Non-GMO Project as a sponsor, as well as The Campaign, an organization working to label GM foods.

Because it’s an independent, family-owned business, Tibbott’s company can maintain traditional methods of processing that retain nutritive value and are gentle on the environment. “We use real wood chips and an actual smokehouse to smoke our Jurky and Deli Slices, and we don’t use soy isolates like so many other soy manufacturers (with the exception of the franks, which use organic isolates). This means we can avoid hexane extraction in favor of expeller pressed isolates—at a substantially higher price, but we think it’s worth it.”

Part of the solution
Tibbott was “out to save the world,” when he first began Turtle Island Foods. After years of learning the ropes of managing a business and acknowledging the importance of money in the equation, he’s still sanguine. “It’s satisfying for me to see that my early pie in the sky dream was actually valid. And I’ve learned the business steps along the way. I feel we’re part of the solution to creating sustainable living on our planet.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report November 2009