In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, we’re talking turkey, literally. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live 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.
Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. It's about the hidden side of everything. Dubner, welcome back.
Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai, thanks. I've got a little Thanksgiving quiz for you. Are you up for that?
Ryssdal: No, I don't do quizzes. It's my show. All right, what?
Dubner: Well, I'm going to force you to.
Ryssdal: All right.
Dubner: All right, here we go. Americans will probably eat about 40 million turkeys this month. Now, I hope this doesn't kill your appetite, but what percentage of those 40 million birds do you think were the product of artificial insemination?
Ryssdal: Really? That's the question?
Dubner: That's the question. It is really the question this week.
Ryssdal: All right, 82.6? I don't know.
Dubner: That's a great guess, great guess. The truth is it's actually pretty close to 100 percent.
Ryssdal: Really? So there's no, like, turkey sex going on?
Dubner: Well let's unravel this. Let me ask you this, Kai: When you roast your family turkey, what ends up being the most popular meat that everybody wants?
Ryssdal: Always the white meat. It's the breast meat, always.
Dubner: Always the white meat.
Dubner: My family, the same. Now some people would say that's just because you want to increase the surface area for gravy. But whatever the case, Americans love their white meat. And this goes back to the 1950s, when traditional turkeys got pushed out by a breed called the broad-breasted white, which grows bigger and faster than the traditional bird. And that broad-breasted white has been selectively bred to have the largest breasts possible.
There's just one problem with this and I'm going to let Julie Long from the USDA explain it to you.
Julie Long: The modern turkey has quite large turkey breasts, and it actually physically gets in the way when the male and the female try to create offspring.
Ryssdal: Create offspring. Come on, really? Did she just say that? So it gets in the way, I guess.
Dubner: On your air.
Ryssdal: Yeah, I know right? And my mother's listening, too. So they can't, you know, do it?
Dubner: That's exactly right. It's tragic, isn't it, if you think about it? And as a result, the turkey industry is built around artificial insemination, which is a very labor-intensive and hands-on process. Here's the way it works: A team of workers has to pick up each male breeder, the tom, which might weigh as much as 70 pounds, secure his contribution -- as they call it in the trade -- and then bring that to the hen house to inseminate each hen. And then keep in mind -- with such an intense consumer demand for turkey -- this is not a once-a-year event. Here's Julie Long again from the USDA.
Long: So that means once a week, five to six months, you have to go work with the males and then go work with the females in order to produce the meat that goes out for the consumer.
Ryssdal: OK, so a couple of things, I love this in its entirety. One, who knew that girl turkeys were called hens? Two, I loved the way that she said "work with," "work with them." But three, this is also conceivably, just to get back to the business thing here, it's a jobs program. Right? You need people to go work with these turkeys.
Dubner: That is a bright side, absolutely a silver lining. Now keep in mind, if you don't like this idea, and you want to serve your family a turkey this Thanksgiving that's the product of natural, old-fashioned turkey reproduction, then you might turn to what's called a heritage turkey. Here's Cyndi Muller, who raises heritage birds in Illinois. But keep in mind, as she makes clear, Kai, it'll cost you.
Cyndi Muller: I know in some parts of the country, the price of a heritage bird for your Thanksgiving table can be over $150, $200 for a bird.
Ryssdal: No way!
Dubner: Way. Way.
Ryssdal: Really? That's a lot of money.
Dubner: Yeah, it's a lot. Well over triple, let's say, what you would pay for a big bird.
Ryssdal: Just to have a little fun in life, right?
Dubner: That's exactly right. I mean look, the holidays are supposed to be a feel-good time.
Ryssdal: Stop. Stop.
Dubner: So you may decide that instead of making yourself feel good by dropping, let's say $100 in the Salvation Army bucket, you might want to spend that $100 subsidizing the right of some male to turkey to, well, you know, have a better holiday.
Ryssdal: And females, it should be said. And females.
Dubner: There you go.
Ryssdal: Freakonomics.com is the website, that's where you send all the hate mail this week. Stephen Dubner, we'll see you in a couple of weeks.
Dubner: Thanks Kai, happy eating.
Ryssdal: Uh yeah, I don't know about that.