For your benefit, I'd like to pull out one thread that churned through the blogosphere over the holiday; namely, the state of America's turkey production. I know, I know, you've had your turkey already and have probably gorged yourself to the point that you don't even want to think about poultry until next November, but trust me... I have some interesting news for you.
WIRED's Alexis Madrigal posted an article last Tuesday about our supersized turkeys, which resemble America's wild ones in name only.
Turkeys more than doubled in size [between 1929 and 2007] from an average of 13 pounds to an average of 29 pounds . . . According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the largest wild turkey on record is 38 pounds . . . in commercial and academic turkey-breeding programs, adult male turkeys, called toms, can reach 50 pounds at the tender age of five months, said John Anderson, a longtime turkey breeder at Ohio State University.
Perhaps the most obvious change in turkey genetics is that, unlike the colorful pictures we all drew in elementary school, modern, factory-farmed birds are all white . . . Commercial turkeys can't fly and researchers have even invented a way of quantifying how impaired the birds' walking has become. The 1-to-5 scale ranges from "birds whose legs did not have any defect" to bowlegged birds who have "great difficulty walking." After 30 years of breeding, Ohio State's big birds average a 3 . . . The birds also have a hard time regulating their own food intake. In essence, they eat too much and get fat.
Anderson, who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket . . . "It takes the lid off how big the bird can be. If the size of the bird keeps them from mating, then you're stuck."
Wondering about that last sentence? It's true. Jim Mason went to work for Butterball as an artificial inseminator in the winter of 1997, chronicling his experience in the Farm Sanctuary News. There, he notes that the mass-produced turkeys are in fact too big to breed and describes the process now substituted for turkey-on-turkey action:
I have never done such hard, fast, dirty, disgusting work in my life. Ten hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement, breathing the dust stirred up by the terrified birds, ignoring verbal abuse from Joe and the others on the crew - all of this without a break or a bite to eat (not that I could have eaten anything amongst all this). Working under this conditions week after week (Bill had been there for four years), these men had grown callous, rough, and brutal.Farm Sanctuary posted a video on YouTube in January 2007 detailing the turkey insemination process (warning: it's pretty graphic), and Mike Rowe from Discovery's Dirty Jobs worked as a turkey inseminator in an episode that premiered in May this year. Here's the intro:
You can find Mike's "action" clips, where he works hands-on with the male and female turkeys, here and here.
PETA also ran an investigation into Butterball's practices in 2006 and found equally (if not more) nightmarish conditions. You can watch their video here (again, be warned that this isn't a pleasant viewing experience although it is perhaps more cinematic than the previous videos) and read through specific examples of the cruelty they observed here. PETA claims that the USDA subsequently recognized Butterball's cruelty to animals, although I have yet to find independent confirmation.
Oh, and don't forget everyone's favorite video of Sarah Palin:
(Sorry, it was just too good to ignore.)
Okay, now that we've established the sordid state of turkey "farms" in America, let's look at the driving force behind it. I think the WIRED article hits the nail on the head when it suggests the current state of affairs can be blamed on the market:
The accumulation of agricultural breeding knowledge and consumer testing has resulted in plants and animals that are physically shaped by consumer tastes . . . American consumers like white meat, so turkeys are grown with larger breasts . . . the United States pumped out 33 times more pounds of turkey at a lower cost to consumers in 2007 than our farmers did in 1929.More meat for a lower cost. Ah, the blindness of mass consumption. So, now we should probably start asking ourselves what we can do to reverse this situation. I think that begins with a look at what an American turkey is supposed to look like:
Little better right? Perhaps you noticed a stark difference from the earlier videos? Here, National Geographic provides some background on the bird:
The turkey was Benjamin Franklin's choice for the United States' national bird. The noble fowl was a favored food of Native Americans. When Europeans arrived, they made it one of only two domestic birds native to the Americas—the Muscovy duck shares the distinction. Yet by the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat . . . Wild turkey reintroduction programs began in the 1940s, and the birds were relocated to areas where populations had been decimated but woodlands were recovering. Such efforts worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have occurred when Europeans first reached the Americas.So, the wild turkey is actually a success story... for the most part. Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste lists five American turkeys that are threatened with either real or potential extinction and that are available for consumption in limited quantities: the American Bronze Turkey, Bourbon Red Turkey, Jersey Buff Turkey, Midget White Turkey, and Narragansett Turkey.
You might think it a bit odd that the Slow Food movement is encouraging you to eat animals that may soon be extinct, but in today's society, turning these turkeys into a commodity may be the only way to make people care enough to ensure their protection and procreation. Rest assured, these turkey farms are small-scale and sustainable. Heritage Foods USA, the sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, explains:
The Heritage Turkey Project, which helped double the population of heritage turkeys in the United States and upgraded the Bourbon Red turkey from "rare" to "watch" status on conservation lists, was Heritage Foods USA's first foray into saving American food traditions.Noble work. Still... you have to kill your turkey, and what exactly does a humane execution entail? Well, Kat on Eating Liberally posted a fantastic article on the importance of knowing the origin of your turkey dinner. Referring to the Palin video I posted above, Kat explains:
In 2004 it became an independent company dedicated to saving not only turkeys but also Native American foods, pigs, sheep, bison, cows, reef-net salmon, goats and all breeds of food livestock.
- A true heritage turkey is reproduced and genetically maintained through self-breeding;
- A true heritage turkey has a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 8-9 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years;
- A true heritage turkey has a slower rate of growth. Today's heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in 26-28 weeks.
I've watched the Jamie Oliver clip and though I found it painful, I recognize that it's the natural order of things. I hold to my belief that it is fine to eat meat, but we should do our best to ensure that it is produced in a sustainable manner that provides a reasonably pleasant life for the animal and protections for the land it is raised on. Obviously this ensures that we are subsequently eating healthier, tastier meat than is available from food conglomerates.
The media deemed it necessary to blur this bloody backdrop, in deference to the "unspoken covenant of ignorance" between consumers and the food industry that historian Ann Vileisis documents in Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need To Get It Back:
So now the blogosphere's a-Twitter with talk about "turkey carnage" and the "surreal... gruesomeness going on over her shoulder".
But you could argue that Palin performed a public service, however inadvertently. Americans are totally in denial about the way our livestock live--and die. Can you imagine the Food Network ever allowing Rachel Ray to slaughter a chicken in front of a live audience and millions of viewers, the way Jamie Oliver did back in January? After electrocuting the chicken, he told the visibly shocked audience:
As the New York Times noted:
Michael Pollan took it upon himself to learn how to slaughter chickens because, as he wrote in The Omnivore's Dilemma:
Thank you for making it through what is admittedly a very long post! There are none-the-less many other factors that play into the story of turkey production in America that I was unable to address here, such as corporate use of antibiotics, hormones, and bio-engineered feed as well as the debate about whether companies or American consumers are responsible for the degradation of meat production. I have no doubt that those will come up in future posts though, and in the meantime I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have. For now I just hope I haven't ruined your Thanksgiving leftovers...