Some Turkey Facts to Consider, and Why You Don't Want Al Gore Doing the Roasting

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: D’Arcy

‘Tis the season for turkey shopping, and the price is right. According to this Wall Street Journal squib, the price of whole frozen turkeys has fallen from 94 cents per pound last year to just 66 cents per pound, with Wal-Mart leading the way, selling turkeys for just 40 cents per pound. (Note: price estimates vary.)

The estimated volume of turkeys raised in the U.S. this year is about 250 million, down slightly from last year. But if the past is predictive, that may be because of an increase in average turkey weight. Six states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri, and Indiana — account for two-thirds of all U.S. turkey production. The actual number of turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving, meanwhile, often reported to be 46 million — is, according to Carl Bialik, the Numbers Guy at the Journal, fuzzy at best.

In any case, how many commercially raised turkeys do you think were the result of artificial insemination?

The answer seems to be 100 percent.

Why?

Because Americans particularly love to eat the breast meat of male turkeys. (“I suspect — though don’t ask me to prove! — that at root it’s about increasing the surface area for gravy,” says Suzanne Freidberg, who guest-blogged here about her book Fresh.) This means that turkeys have been bred to have abnormally large breasts. As Karen Davis reports in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, citing William M. Healy, “such gross breast development [means that] few adult males can even walk, let alone breed.” As you can imagine, this leads to conditions that are abhorrent to animal-rights activists and others.

Here are some of the particulars of the how the mass artificial insemination is carried out; you may want to save this reading until a few days after Thanksgiving (unless PETA has already scared you into going the Tofurkey route). If you’re especially brave, you might want to check out this Technical Advice Sheet (pdf) from British United Turkeys Ltd. For instance:

When the straw is inserted into the everted oviduct (fig. 2) the operator (or “cracker”) should release the pressure with the hands and knees to prevent “blowback” of the semen. When the pipette has been removed gently lower the hen to the ground in the direction of the inseminated hens. If the hen is dropped this may force semen out of the oviduct.

Anyway … now that Thanksgiving has nearly arrived, a great many of us are preparing to roast that bird to a golden-brown crisp. One word of advice: if Al Gore happens to stop in, you might want to keep him out of the kitchen. As he told Conan O’Brien in this recent Tonight Show interview, while discussing geothermal energy, “the interior of the earth is extremely hot, several million degrees.”

Unfortunately, Gore was off by — well, a lot. So he may think your oven too is far, far hotter than it actually is, and if you leave the roasting duties to him you’ll end up with one seriously raw bird.

Thanks to Will Masters and James McWilliams for help with the turkey literature.


Tristan

I don't see how Tofurky is an appealing option for a Thanksgiving dinner. I mean, I don't want to eat Turkey, so why should I eat a bad substitute for Turkey?

There's already 2 to 3 times more food on a typical thanksgiving menu then we need, cut out the turkey, and you get to enjoy more of the rest of the food.

Nosybear

Al, Al, please leave the science to the scientists. You are becoming an embarrassment to environmentalists. Good to know info about turkeys. Most of us have the image of the wild tom in our heads when we think about the Thanksgiving bird, not the strange mutants we actually eat. By the way, ours was 25 cents a pound at a Houston HEB. Under certain circumstances, the store was giving the turkeys away.

clabl

funny, i guess, that al gore got something so wrong. but in all your defenses of the global-warming stuff in your new book, i have yet to read an explanation for what seems to be the basic, underlying mocking/skeptical tone regarding gore. i mean, i get that he's wrong about stuff, but why does his wrong-ness provoke ire in you guys in a way that the wrong-ness of nearly every other politician doesn't?

Filip van Laenen

Well, if this Al Gore dude has found out that the temperature in the interior of the earth has risen to several million degrees, that explains the global warming thing he got a Nobel Peace Prize for. Right?

patrick

Everyone needs a little (more?) semen blowback in their lives.

CP

OMG! Maybe if Al is wrong about the temperature of the Earth maybe he's wrong about global warming too! I totally get where you're going with that!

Or, you know, maybe he just misspoke, which happens to mortals sometimes.

Cackalacka

I don't think I have too much to add to this discussion, apart from the fact that my local paper's syndicated ultra-conservative has been pimping the shoddy facts from your latest book (i.e. the thermal heat generated by "black" solar cells which has been subsequently debunked.)

I'm all for contrarianism and thinking outside the box, particularly in heated controversial subjects that have enormous ramifications.

That said, there are a variety of center-right blogs with a focus on science and economics to choose from, ones that are more rigorous about their fact-checking. Places where intellectual rigor and professionalism go beyond the snarky post about Al Gore.

This comment is merely posted to mention that I have struck Freakonomics from my google reader. I will check in from time to time. I applaud your contrarianism, but please try to be more factual moving forward.

DrS

Gore provokes ire because he constantly pretends to know more of the science than he does, and encourages a mocking tone of people who have abandoned science, or won't listen to scientists.

He provokes more of my ire because he doesn't practice what he preaches, suggesting others have to consume less, and he shrugs off agriculture arguments because he knows that telling people not to eat meat would, while more effective than more efficient cars, would make him less popular and too left wing.

Shea

The Gore poke seems a non sequitor here, and I agree with some of the other posters that it appears to be little more than lashing out at Superfreakonomics critics.

Bad form in an otherwise interesting column.

toss255

I actually think the Gore "poking" is about the invincible sanctimony of the man. Usual science has a bit of modesty adhering to it, a touch of the I-might-be-wrong. And, the Nobel prize still carries some weight, though now it does seem to be the province of left-leaning American politicians of late.

--E

Why be squeamish with artificial insemination of turkeys? It's not as if they're the only meat that is reproduced this way. Beef farmers would never let a bull near a valuable cow. Aside from the relative size of the bull and the potential injury to the cow, no one wants to waste all that valuable semen on just one offspring. Collect the semen, divvy it up in lots ("straws"), and use it to impregnate a whole bunch of cows.

(This is what I learned when temping for the American Angus Association many years ago. Memorable, for sure!)

The male:female ratio of most farmed meat animals isn't 1:1. Typically we keep the females and a few of the best males for breeding purposes, and eat the rest of the males. The reasons why should be obvious to anyone reading a blog about economics.

David Blackburn

Your post would have been complete without the snide remark about Al Gore. I sure like to see you go on television day in and day out and not make mistakes. It's sure easy to criticize others!

Ken

That means at $0.60/lb, a 15lb turkey is $9, an upper limit on the cost of artificial insemination. Likely its more like $2 or so, I mean they have to be fed. That's a far cheaper service than our health care industry provides, at $300-500, and the results seem to be just fine.

Steve

Funny thing. Nobody really knows the temperature of the earth's core. Estimates seem to range from 4,000 c and higher. Who knows. Maybe Al Gore guessed right.

Lynda

The correctness of your Q&A -- "In any case, how many commercially raised turkeys do you think were the result of artificial insemination? The answer seems to be 100 percent." -- depends on your definition of "commercially." If the definition relates to commerce, i.e. something along the lines of buying and selling, or for-profit businesses, then I'd beg to differ. There are small farmers raising heritage breed turkeys such as the Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, and Slate for local markets. Most commercial hatcheries breeding these birds for backyard flocks sold out of their stock very quickly this year, given the rise in the DIY urban farmer. Unlike the broad-breasted white (the dominant commercial breed), heritage turkeys have smaller breasts and can therefore effectively navigate the logistics of natural mating. And many farmers allow them to naturally mate because it's easier than worrying about straw blowback. They also charge more than 40 cents per pound -- try $4 per pound.
Of course, you could still be right; it depends on how many significant figures you're rounding to. People raising heritage turkeys for sale are still a tiny minority, I'm guessing in the hundredths place.
Aside from the unnecessary dig at Al Gore, this was an interesting post on a not-often-discussed topic. "E" (#11) raises a good point. The majority of males in the livestock world are useless alive -- but make good meat when dead. Hens lay eggs; does and cows give milk; ewes make lambs. Roosters make soup; bucks and bulls make steaks; rams and ram lambs make mutton and lambchops. Some breeds, of course, are designed for meat only -- in which case both the males and females are eaten (although more females are kept around for breeding than males). This applies to the broad-breasted white turkey, the Cornish cross chicken and, I'd imagine, meat cows and pigs as well.

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Andy

This will be our third year in a row eating home-made vegan sushi for Thanksgiving! Forget Tofurkey!

Richard Anderson

I'm a dark meat fan myself, but maybe one reason for wanting a big-breasted turkey is because it makes for good sandwiches for the weekend.

Gopher

My neighborhood is seriously overrun with wild turkeys. Although they have a reputation for being difficult to hunt, these neighborhood turkeys are so blase about human presence that I would have no difficulty wringing one of their scrawny necks. (Cost: 0 cents/lbs). Not that I would ever do such a horrid thing. Never, never, never. But if I did, is wild turkey good eating?

The Poet McTeagle

Grocery stores here have specials. We got a 16 lb turkey at one store for 32 cents a pound. and a 12 lb turkey at another for 22 cents a pound.

Cheaper than potatoes. Cheaper than carrots! Cheaper than dog food, which is what I bought them for, since I'm a vegetarian. Factory farming is amazing. Remember when carrots and potatoes were cheaper than poultry?

kjksm

I like the idea behind Thanksgiving but the amount of food kills me.Thanksgiving is the all -time-waste- as-much-food-as-possible day.We throw out more than half the food we eat. How about making less and giving non perishables to your local food pantry.