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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.

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There are many other things that factory farmed turkeys aren't able to do--care for their young, build nests, take dust baths, preen, and roost in trees to name just a few. These gentle, inquisitive birds feel pain just as much as dogs, cats, and other animals. They relish having their feathers stroked and like to chirp, cluck, and gobble along to music. According to poultry scientist Tom Savage, turkeys are smart animals with personality and character, and a keen awareness of their surroundings.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks, not causing suffering. We can celebrate the blessings in our lives without taking a turkey's life. See www.PETA.org for free vegan recipes and product suggestions.

Heather Moore
PETA Foundation

Why would any thinking person find this humorous? If it was done to humans it would be called "atrocity". Laughing at the suffering of those who are defenseless is vile...........

Ben Franklin called turkeys "true American originals." He had tremendous respect for their resourcefulness, agility, and beauty. Turkeys are gentle, intelligent animals, who value their lives as much as we value ours. In nature, turkeys can fly 55 miles an hour, run 18 miles an hour, and live up to 10 years. Not so for the souls on factory farms. Before ending up as holiday centerpieces, these birds spend their short lives packed into dark sheds with only a few feet to move. Turkeys are genetically bred to grow as fast as possible, and they often become crippled under their own weight.

Try delicious, cruelty-free vegan "turkey" with all the fixins', and spare our "true American original" the horrors of becoming your dinner. I've been vegan for several years and no meaty meal can match a healthy, delectable plant-based Thanskgiving feast.

Living beings subjected to extreme discomfort and an unnatural existence. How is this humorous in any way? I find it quite curious that the "thoughtful," "responsible" NPR can be so detached from animal cruelty...simply because it involves birds that are used for food. Too bad that the abuse of CERTAIN animals is still considered PC and that NPR isn't evolved or compassionate enough to realize it's really not a subject for light-hearted banter.

It is fairly amazing to what ends humans will go to get what we want. That said, I find it more amazing how out of touch we are with regards to what goes on in the natural world. Since I raise birds, i am here to say the turkeys (at least the hens) have it a lot worse in the natural world. Toms/roosters/drakes are not the most civil creatures and I can assure you the hens find no pleasure in procreation. At least with Artificial Insemination (AI) the hen only has to deal with it once. A flock with two or more males, well, lets just say they will take turns. So while AI might seem like rape, consider the alternative before "liberating them from the cruelty of humanity"

The truth is far worse than this report explains. Turkeys have been genetically bred to have such deformed bodies that they suffer excrutiatingly from having insufficient skeletal capacity to support their weight. They are often arthritic and lame before the short time they survive until slaughter. The insemination process is also horrifibly brutal. See:
http://www.upc-online.org/fall94/breeding.html

Why support such animal abuse? There are delicious alternatives to serving the dead body of a tortured bird. See, for example: http://vegweb.com/index.php?board=327.0 They are also better for us and for the environment.

Respect life - including your own: Go vegan.

Merriam-Webster.com defines rape: to force (someone) to have sex with you by using violence or the threat of violence. Calling this "artificial insemination" is one more way the animal abuse industries attempt to present their cruelties as civilized. I don't find forced artifical insemination any less disgusting than rape. Read www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-insideaturkey.html

It's seems pretty clear that those participating in this interview including the Marketplace reporter have little or no knowledge of what a turkey's true nature is like. When you come to understand this, I can be fairly certain your apathetic attitude would be replaced with a much more compassionate one. And then you could express the grace and gratitude that Thanksgiving is really all about. These are truly magnificent birds whose marginalized role in our lives stems from our own ignorance. That is a real tragedy for them and for us.

As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I want to point out that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic religious mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people and that animal -based diets and agriculture are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities, and contributing significantly to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity. I believe it is essential that the Jewish community address these issues and consider shifts to plant-based diets to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

For further information about Jewish teachings on vegetarianism, please see my 150 articles and 25 podcasts and complete text of my book "Judaism and Vegetarianism" at JewishVeg.com/schwartz and please see our acclaimed documentary "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World" at ASacedDuty.com.

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