Your Thanksgiving turkey is probably a product of artificial insemination

Turkeys stand in a barn. Americans will probably eat 40 million turkeys this month -- most of them won't be naturally reproduced.

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.

Ryssdal: Yeah.

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.

Log in to post47 Comments


I think the story is misleading people by including the sound bite that heritage breed turkeys cost
$150-200. I have found them to be $50-100. Most of the time, heritage birds are locally grown, hormone-free, and pasture-fed birds. The story never compares the pros/cons between the two.

Dead Factory-Farmed Bird, $15.
Dead Heritage Bird, $100.
Celebrating Thanksgiving without killing anyone?

A great moral concept. Unfortunately, one that flavor addicted, selfish, thoughless humans CHOOSE to ignore--after all, whats more important than giving to self, no matter the cost.

Really? On NPR? Turkeys are intelligent, sentient, friendly living creatures that suffer at the bloody hands of us "humans." Anyone who thinks this is funny in any way or titilating is a moron and a low-life. Sorry. The truth hurts.

Well that's it for contributing to NPR for me. How can the media allow a piece that makes light of hideous cruelty and suffering sentient beings. This is no funnier than any other pain, suffering, rape and murder. The turkeys feel. Try a delicious plant-based holiday meal and all the sudden the word "thanks" takes on a whole new meaning. And I will be donating to organizations that deserve it.

4o million times an injustice done doesn't make such acts right or "funny". And even if money can buy anything and is such an abstract tool, subjugating all under "it's market value" is that what we are all so sick of now. No matter what.

Thank you NPR for highlighting one of the many freakish horrors common in today's meat industry. Freaks!(onomics) truly describes what corporate society is. The commodification of animals is one of the true horrors of our time. Thanksgiving's original intent was honorable, unfortunately, Thanksgiving has become a celebration of turkey slaughter! And all mature humans who indulge in cruelty-laden animal products are complicit in this morally bankrupt sheeple indoctrination. In spite of the euphemisms used to justify the slaughter of animals for consumption, the fact is, the nutritional values attributed to meat consumption can be obtained from plant-based foods. I'm sure those same values could be obtained from eating human flesh, but that doesn't mean we should do it. Turkey is not a health food nor is any meat a life-giving need. The moral of this issue is that humans are selfish at any cost, and corporate greed has no ethical morals. Compassion for animals should extend to your plate.

I've been a happy listener of NPR for over 20 years. But oh, how dismaying it was to hear the piece on artificial insemination of turkeys treated with such flippant disregard for the animals involved. How are we to evolve when those in power use the helpless for stupid jokes ? I expected more from you all.

I submitted a letter to the show, but you put it better. I could understand that the subject made for cheap humor, but I felt so bad for the turkeys. I actually went on youtube to see footage of the process of artificial insemination. Potentially brutal in careless hands and certainly a complete disregard for the animal. All the comments made bey viewers of this foottage were crude jokes. No one cared about the turkey. Thanks again.


With Generous Support From...