Too Big To Be Healthy: How Your Thanksgiving Turkey Got So Fat

Unless you’ve forked over the cash (and time spent in line at a farmer’s market stand) for a heritage turkey this year, chances are, your Thanksgiving bird looks wildly different from the one that your forebears served. Not only is it pumped full of antibiotics and fed an unnatural diet of corn and soy; it’s also so fat that it can’t even breed without the help of test tubes.

The average turkey weight has increased at least 121% since 1929, reaching 29 pounds back in 2008. While the extra meat is lovely (if you’re a turkey-lover like me), the way we’ve gotten there is disturbing. According to an article from Wired, we wouldn’t have those 30- to 40-pounders if it weren’t for turkey baster babies (pun intended):

[John Anderson, a longtime turkey breeder at Ohio State University], who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket. The reason is that turkeys over 30 pounds are “inefficient” breeders: It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act. With artificial insemination, the largest birds can still be used as sires, even if they have a hard time walking, let alone engaging in sexual reproduction.

“You can spread the one tom around better. It adds a whole new level of efficiency. You can spread him over more hens,” Anderson said. “It takes the lid off how big the bird can be. If the size of the bird keeps them from mating, then you’re stuck.”

This process, compounded over dozens of generations, has yielded turkeys with genes that make them very big. In one study in the journal Poultry Science, turkeys genetically representative of old birds from 1966 and modern turkeys were each fed the exact same old-school diet. The 2003 birds grew to 39 pounds while the legacy birds only made it to 21 pounds. Other researchers have estimated that 90 percent of the changes in turkey size are genetic.

But not all of the changes are genetic. The same turkeys that are too fat to mate are also too fat to fly or move much at all, so they’re eating more and moving less, resulting in far less healthy meat (to say nothing of the flavor). And to keep the animals from getting sick (as one would expect from an animal that’s become too obese to maintain basic bodily functions), they’re injected with antibiotics to keep their growth going smoothly.

The moral of the story is: Look for non-factory farmed meats. Turkeys aren’t the only ones getting stuffed and bred to get large, so even if it’s too late to find a heritage-bred bird for your dinner tomorrow, it’s not too late to rethink the meat you eat the rest of the year.


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    • Hanna Brooks Olsen

      Blerg. This is really sad.