Unnatural Turkeys (Ep. 49)

Photo: Martin Pettitt

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.

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I am on an AI crew. Turkeys and I read a post that stated that wild turkeys are not endangered that person is correct they are not endangered but if we did not artificially inseminate turkey and we depend solely on wild turkeys it would only be a matter of time before they would be in danger.I would like to ensure everybody that the farm system that I work for takes very good care of their birds and we are gentle with the birds. Now on the other hand there are farm systems that give turkey farmers a bad name and the rough with the birds and the abuse of birds which i think is wrong. But to keep up with the turkey demand in the United States insemination is a must. Now vegetarians of course don't have to eat Turkey, but I'm not talking about vegetarians I'm talking about people who eat turkey.I also read in a post on another website that they referred to people who work in the turkey industry artificial insemination are criminals and junkies. I'm not a criminal or a junkie I'm a father to go to work at 3 o'clock in the morning to make a living for my family. Now however you look at artificial insemination. There are a lot of people employed in the industry and these people have a tough job. 4 as seen on Dirty Jobs. it is true that these turkeys on a farm are bred to be bigger.well I'm an AI catcher and I catch anywhere from 3000 does 350o birds a day.