Turkey Basters

About 60 hours from now, give or take, most Americans will be eating something involving turkey. For reasons which probably have little to do with the Pilgrims, turkey has become a central part in the American Thanksgiving tradition. And like many other things, when it comes to turkey, more is better. So if you’re in the business of raising turkeys for sale at the grocery store, you’re also in the business of making bigger, meatier birds.

Which also means you have to artificially inseminate them. Probably.

Three years ago, Stephen Dubner of the book and blog and podcast Freakonomics (that goes to the book) sat down with Kai Ryssdal of American Public Radio’s Marketplace to discuss the traditional main course. After both agreed that white meat is preferable to dark meat (which is wrong), Dubner noted that turkey breeders saw the obvious profit opportunity:

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.

That makes sense — and it’s been highly effective. The Daily Mail noted that from 1960 to 2013, the average weight of a typical Thanksgiving turkey doubled.

But bigger turkeys created a problem. Dubner quoted Julie Long, a research physiologist for the United States Department of Agriculture who focuses on the poultry sector. Turkeys, Long noted, have been bred to be so large that they can’t sustain themselves as a species. Or, as long put it, “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.” So for these birds, “the birds and the bees” no longer works.

So, breeders have to step in. Long euphemistically described the process to Dubner: “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.” Dubner further estimated that nearly 100% of commercially sold turkeys are created via this process. So if you eat turkey on Thanksgiving, almost certainly, the outcome of the work described by Long ends up on your plate, next to cranberry sauce.

Bonus Fact: Subway — the sandwich chain — offers a sandwich called the “Cold Cut Combo,” which comes with “ham, salami, and bologna.” The sandwich, per the corporate website, aims to satisfy those who “can’t decide what type of meat [they] want.” But that’s kind of misleading. Subway’s website (on the same page, to be fair), also notes that all three of the meats are “turkey-based.” A closer look at the ingredients (available here as a pdf; you can see a screen shot highlighting the relevant sandwich here) shows that turkey is the only meat used in the sandwich.

From the ArchivesHow Turkey Got Its Name: Why is a bird native to North America named after a country in Europe and Asia?

RelatedFreakonomics, the book.