Unnatural Turkeys: A New Marketplace Podcast

In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, we’re talking turkey, literally. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.) Americans are expected to eat more than 40 million of the big birds this month for Thanksgiving, so we asked the same question everyone’s thinking: where do they all come from? The answer might surprise you – it certainly seemed to surprise Kai Ryssdal.

Specifically, the question is this: of all the commercially raised turkeys in the U.S., what percentage are the product of artificial insemination?

The answer, oddly enough, is 100 percent. Why? Well, it’s a supply-and-demand story. Because Americans particularly love to eat turkey breast meat (a great delivery platform for gravy!), turkeys have been selectively bred over the years to have bigger and bigger breasts. So big, in fact, that when it comes time for a male turkey to naturally reproduce with a female, his massive breast prevents him from getting close enough to complete the act.

At least all that artificial insemination creates jobs (for humans), as it’s a surprisingly labor-intensive enterprise. Vanderbilt football coach Robbie Caldwell did his part:

“My first hourly paying job was on the turkey farm. I don’t know if I can tell you what my job was, but I was on the inseminating crew. That’s a fact. I worked my way to the top…I debeaked, blood-tested, vaccinated, I did it all. That was pretty special. Looking back on it, that was one of the greatest jobs.”

Turkeys are hardly the only animals that are sex-starved before being trotted off to slaughter. Experts estimate that up to 95 percent of dairy cows and 90 percent of pigs are the product of artificial insemination. Chickens and beef cattle, meanwhile, are almost always brought to us by good old-fashioned reproduction.

Here’s where you can listen to Marketplace on a station near you.


Rosewood

"Americans particularly love to eat turkey breast meat (a great delivery platform for gravy!), turkeys have been selectively bred over the years to have bigger and bigger breasts. So big, in fact, that when it comes time for a male turkey to naturally reproduce with a female, his massive breast prevents him from getting close enough to complete the act."

There is some kind of commentary about the obesity problem in America woven in that little statement.

B J

In addition to obesity their is a direct correlation between the increased consumption of animal products and the increased rates of heart disease, stroke, and many forms of cancer in the US . Even if you choose not to eat meat, you still pay for it; increased healthcare premiums, increased pollution, exposure to killer viruses.

JeyMan

And there is a direct correlation between people who use the wrong version of "there" and the validity of their argument.

B J

I heard this story yesterday on NPR and it promted me to visit this site for the first time. I am skeptical of anything authored by anyone associated with the U of C economics department ('Shock Doctrine"), and this story did not dissapoint. Thanks for the quirky bit of mildly interesting trivia, including the titilating sexual inuendo, and obligatory non-statement from a federal government official, that completely misses the point. 99% of the turkeys and chickens consumed in the US are produced on corporate controlled factory farms. These "birds" are genecially modified freaks raised in completely unnnatural, and unsanitary conditions. These farms are breeding grounds for modern super viruses ("bird flu"), and the concentrared pollution they release into the air and water is dangerous to surrounding communities. If you would like to free yourself from the cognitive dissonance required to take this story at face value, I reccomend you read "Eating Animals" by Johnanthan Foer, published by Little, Brown, and Co. You will get a true and fair account of how agriculture in the US has been transformed over the past 50 years. Do yourself, your family, and your community a favor this Thanksgiving - don't eat turkry.

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Ben

Yes everyone, this person is speaking the truth. You can fight it all you want, marginalize it, explain it away, mock it, etc etc. But it's still the truth. I encourage anyone who is interested in knowing the REAL "hidden side of everything" related to the poultry industry and factory farming as a whole to read Foer's book "Eating Animals." What you decide to do with that truth is up to you.

The creators of this podcast should be embarrassed, it represents the worst kind of feel-good infotainment filler masquerading under the pretense of intelligent journalism.

James

"Because Americans particularly love to eat turkey breast meat..."

(Sigh) So when do they revoke my citizenship? I much prefer the dark meat.

Or maybe you folks could use a bit more precision in your writing? That many, or even most, Americans prefer some thing does not imply that it's a universal trait of all Americans. Or indeed, that Canadians or Britons have different turkey meat preferences.

Jacque Towner

I found the frivolous tone of this story very disturbing. That we are modifying living creatures to the point that they can't reproduce naturally to satisfy our desire for more, cheep and ultimately unsustainable meat production is disgusting, not titillating or amusing. Frankly, I expect better from NPR.

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caleb b

What ever happed to the Christmas goose? I seems like the goose was a popular feast type meat for a long time, but now, no one eats them. Why?

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Xian

easier to domesticate turkeys vs geese?

Ian M

Turkey is not even very good. The best we can hope for with turkey is that is tastes as good as chicken. It rarely does.

alex in chicago

Turkey>Chicken

more importantly

Pie > Cake

Rex McClure

First, wild turkeys are not an endangered species. They are out there in great numbers, but very difficult to spot. The selective breeding of domestic turkeys is not a threat to the species, but it provides more tasty meat. Externality count: 0 Negative, 1 positive.

Second, the headline writers need to take a lesson from the marketing department. "Big Breasts Result in Less Sex". That will get some hits.

Not a wetblanket

Sheesh, normally this is not a killjoy zone. Lighten up some of you posters.

Anna

Having overly large breast meat is no picnic for us human hens either - getting in the way of... well, things all the time!

Hugo de Toronja

Socialistic big-government liberal feminists have so devalued and demoralized males in our society that it is really no big surprise that so many turkeys are born to single mothers who have chosen artificial insemination over traditional marriage.

America's single-mom turkeys obviously believe that their children do NOT need a strong male father-figure around the house, and that it's okay for their sons to be raised without a good role model for masculinity and courage and responsibility.

But can we fairly blame them when our society is dominated by an anti-male communistic attitude?

Also, it is very sad to think that these single-mom turkeys are so selfish that they are turning to artificial insemination to procreate when there are likely many thousands of orphaned and neglected baby turkeys in this once-great country who are in desperate need of adoption or foster care. Our thoughts should really be with them on this holiday and NOT with the selfish single-mom turkeys who have allowed themselves to be duped by feministic propaganda!

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rusty rowells

i have 2 baby turkeys and one is bigger than the other the bigger one struts but it puts to there about 6 to 7 weeks old

hayleybieber1037402

dont eat 'em though:D

hayleybieber1037402

I think that this is wrong and needs to be stoped! So what if you dont have the biggest turkey on thanksgiving these animals need to be able to be in their natural habittat and reproduce normally. These animals ar in pain and need to be helped so please comment on a petition to stop this abuse at:

www.change.org/petitions/tell-butterball-to-stop-breeding-turkeys-for-pain

and view this video to show you what these poor animals go through everyday

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D5LM06ZvCk4

autotron

I would love to see some sources for that, because noone else seems to write about this...