Search the Site

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