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Relegated to lunchmeat status most of the year, the humble turkey takes its time-honored place at the center of the American dining table just once a year.
But apart from Thanksgiving, the turkey industry has also become the poster-bird for an increasingly complex globalized food system: It’s a major factor in international trade pacts and export markets, and has raised concerns about environmental impacts.
Up until the 1950’s, turkey farming was a small-scale affair, where most farmed-raised birds were still similar to their wild cousins. But in order to meet rising demand, American farmers began breeding birds both for size and their speed of growth.
“When I joined the faculty of Poultry Science Department at Ohio State University back in 1987, it took 18 weeks to grow a bird up to 30 pounds,” said professor Michael Lilburn. “Now, it takes that amount of time to reach 40 or 45 pounds.”
Commercial birds today, said Lilburn, are bred to have shorter breast bones and larger breasts, often making it impossible for them to breed without human intervention through artificial insemination.
“Unlike years past, turkey has really become a year-round protein—that’s both good and bad,” Lilburn told Bloomberg Environment. “It’s bad, because outside of sliced turkey sold at the deli counter, turkey doesn’t have very much penetration into other industries such as fast food.”
These days, roughly 99 percent of American turkey breeding stock is tied to a few strains of domestic breed called a Broad Breasted White turkey. Two companies, Huntsville, Ala.-based Aviagen, and a Canadian company called Hybrid Turkeys, account for nearly all of the supply of newly hatched turkeys sold to farms.
The U.S. is the largest turkey producer in the world, and its production has risen nearly 300 percent since 1970, according to the National Turkey Federation. The average American eats 18 pounds of turkey per year.
But that’s mostly white meat. Millions of pounds of dark meat, giblets, necks, and other assorted bits end up in the export market.
“The Mexican market is very important, very productive. It’s the number one export market for all turkey,” said Keith Williams, a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation.
The turkey Industry is highly dependent on the North American Free Trade Agreement to secure valuable export markets—especially considering China has banned poultry imports since the avian flu outbreak back in 2015.
“The government is very, very aware of NAFTA’s importance for the turkey industry—believe me,” said Williams. The Trump administration is currently pushing a renegotiation of the 1994 trade pact with Mexico and Canada.
“There is a domestic market for dark meat, but Mexico is very important to us,” said Williams.
The National Turkey Federation is optimistic that China’s ban could soon be coming to an end. Likewise, domestic consumption is also becoming more diversified, Williams said.
“There’s turkey sausage, turkey bacon, it’s a really lean meat,” he said. “Ground turkey, which is primarily dark meat, is going to school lunch programs. Turkey tacos are really popular—kids love them!”
In the South Pacific, turkey tails have become a favorite dish for American Samoans.
The fatty turkey tails started arriving in Samoa shortly after artificial insemination took off in the 1950’s, said Michael Carolan, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University, and author of “No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise.”
“The industry looked around for places to sell all the parts of the bird Americans wouldn’t eat,” he said. “I can’t tell how many people have told me over the years that they didn’t even know turkey had a tail.”
Samoa banned turkey tail imports in 2007 in an attempt to improve public health amid skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes. But as part of its bid join the World Trade Organization, Samoa was ordered to remove the ban, which violated WTO rules on targeting individual products.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said in 2011 the country would not ban the import of turkey tails, but that they would have to have the turkey attached.
“The turkey should bring its own tail to Samoa,” he said. “It’s no good somebody else chowing the turkey and then send the tail to Samoa.”
In 2013, the restrictions were lifted completely.
There is a bronze statue of a turkey on the county line in Shenandoah County, Va.
“We’re very proud of our turkeys around here,” said David Hughes, president of Rivermont Farms, a commercial turkey operation in New Market, Va.
Poultry farms, including turkeys, are often criticized by environmental groups for contributing to both water and air pollution. Poultry operations consume massive amounts of energy to run ventilation and feeding systems. And while the emissions footprint from poultry is less than that of beef, poultry meat and eggs still account for around 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, according to a 2013 United Nations study.
And turkey’s emissions are ahead of those from chicken, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis.
Together with several other large turkey farmers, Hughes is trying to alter that image. Last year he installed 520 ground-mounted solar panels on his farm as part of a federal tax credit program. “It probably saves me about $6,000 per month on my electric bills,” he said.
Hughes says he raises upwards of 100,000 turkeys per year, all big 45-to-50 pound toms.
“They aren’t for Thanksgiving, he said. “Nobody has an oven that big.”
The birds on his farm are largely turned into deli meat for places such as Subway and Arby’s, as well as grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Whole Foods.
“They come in as day-old poults [baby turkeys] on a single panel truck, and they leave on 16 tractor trailers.”
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