Do you have an entire football team coming to dinner this Thanksgiving? Need one of those hefty 20 pound fresh Butterball turkeys to feed your ravenous extended family? You are so out of luck.
Butterball says there just aren’t any big, fresh turkeys this year. Frozen ones are still available, but if you’re after a fresh Butterball that’s never been frozen, you’ll find there’s a shortage. The turkeys just didn’t fatten up this year the way they usually do. The reason for that is not clear, but theories abound.
Butterball supplies 20 percent of all turkeys sold in the U.S. Surely they’ve broken the code on what it takes to raise huge turkeys, haven’t they? So what’s going on this year?
Conspiracy theorists may believe that Butterball’s announcement was merely its underhanded way of generating a mild consumer panic to boost sales. That’s possible, but other explanations are even more interesting.
Before we get into that, let’s first take a look at why turkeys have grown exponentially in size over the past four decades. It’s not a pretty tale.
How to Make Turkeys Just Grow and Grow
Back in 1965, a typical turkey raised to be Thanksgiving dinner weighed about 18 pounds. Thanks to poultry industry practices, the turkey of today weighs 57 percent more — a comparatively gargantuan 28.2 pounds. Think about it this way: If a baby grew as fast as a modern day turkey does, at 18 weeks of age he’d weigh a mind boggling 1,500 pounds.
At such a rate, turkeys will weigh on average about 40 pounds by 2020. The largest wild turkey ever recorded, by the way, weighed 38 pounds.
Why do today’s turkeys get so big so fast? It’s a miracle of modern science, and it may scare the socks off you.
The domestic turkey of 2013 is a wholly different bird from its wild ancestors. Breeders began artificially inseminating turkeys in the 1960s, selectively breeding to ensure only the biggest toms were bred. That predisposed turkeys to get bigger, but the gene pool got a lot smaller.
Today’s turkey is bred to have much larger breasts because that’s what the public wants to eat. It is considered a genetically altered bird. On top of all this breeding manipulation came the growth-enhancing feed additives and antibiotics, and presto — we get a massive turkey at a mere 16 weeks of age.
This fast, unnatural growth has caused myriad physical problems for turkeys:
- They have difficulty standing and often fall over because their bones are too weak to support their weight
- They suffer crippled feet and swollen joints that hurt them so terribly they try to walk on their wings instead
- They often develop congestive heart and lung problems, distended heart sacs, engorged coronary blood vessels and congested livers
- They are so big that many die from organ failure or heart attacks at barely 6 months old.
- They cannot reproduce by themselves and must be artificially inseminated.
Fair warning — if you eat turkey, all the junk that went into them and caused all this mayhem goes into you, too.
Why No Monster-Size Butterball Turkeys This Year?
Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine offers some interesting ideas on why Butterball’s turkeys are more the athletic build than the husky build this year. He thinks the answer may lie in where those turkeys are being marketed.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration allows livestock producers to feed turkeys, pigs and cattle a growth-enhancing drug called ractopamine. Ractopamine has been banned in the European Union, Russia and China.
Butterball exports a full 15 percent of its total product — 100 million pounds of turkey — to more than 50 countries every year. Philpott wonders whether Butterball may have been using ractopamine until this year, when it may have desired to ensure more of its turkey products could be exported to countries which ban this substance in food. It’s not a bad theory.
Another theory involves the price of corn. Corn prices spiked in 2012 because of the drought in the U.S. Midwest. It’s possible Butterball fed its turkeys some type of lower cost feed that just didn’t fatten them up the way good old corn does.
Here’s another theory to chew on. Butterball has a rather shameful history when it comes to the treatment of its turkeys. In 2012, right around Thanksgiving, Mercy for Animals (MFA) released a horrific undercover video of turkeys being abused at five North Carolina farms that supplied Butterball.
This MFA investigation followed on the heels of a similar video from another Butterball supplier released in December 2011. Could it be the turkeys just worried themselves thin this year?
Whatever the reason for the leaner turkeys, Butterball isn’t volunteering any further information.
Do the turkeys a favor. Enjoy a meat-free Thanksgiving this year. Instead of eating one of these magnificent birds, how about sponsoring a rescued turkey from an organization like Farm Sanctuary? The turkeys get to live in peace and you get to avoid ingesting growth-enhancing drugs. It’s a win-win.
Photo credit: Kulmalukko / Wikimedia Commons