Count this among America's accomplishments: We've successfully hacked Thanksgiving.
Writing in Wired back in 2008, Alexis Madrigal detailed the wonders of the "supersized" traditional dinner; the sweeter corn and starchier potatoes a result of "tremendous genetic change under the intense selective pressures of industrial farming." And nowhere is that more evident than with the big bird itself: a marvel of modern meat production that matures twice as fast as its wild counterparts, to a size that's twice as large.
It's impossible to overstate what the modern, commercial turkey, or what's affectionately known as the broad-breasted white, means for Thanksgiving. At least, for Thanksgiving the way we're used to it. We wouldn't be able to put a turkey on 88 percent of Americans' Thanksgiving tables without it. But along the way, we've traded in a lot -- too much, perhaps, to the point where turkey no longer deserves its place at the center of what's supposed to be the year's most mindful feast.
Perhaps the most commonly cited curiosity about modern turkeys is that they're so disproportionately large, with 80 percent of their weight concentrated in their breast, that they're no longer able to mate. The birds are so far removed from the (albeit ill-defined) ideal of "natural" that they're only able to breed through artificial insemination. Forget flying; as a consequence of their disproportionate size, many can barely walk, or even stand upright. In the words of Suzanne McMillan, a poultry expert with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), commercial turkeys are "bred to suffer."
But the concerns for factory-farmed turkeys' well-being, McMillan told Salon, go beyond the suffering they're born into, to the conditions in which they're housed. This, too, will sound familiar to anyone with a working understanding of your standard factory farm: debeaked and de-toed, the birds are crowded in sheds and left with nothing to do except eat -- sometimes each other, hence the reason for the debeaking. Their breeding, ironically enough, may increase the degree to which they're impacted by their stressful conditions, weakening their immune system. The combination of both, one USDA study suggests, has made them more susceptible to disease.
And that which makes turkeys sick can harm people, too. McMillan points to the months spent lying in their own waste (remember, many can't stand), providing ample opportunity for their feces to contaminate their open wounds, or the lesions caused by the ammonia gas that can accumulate in poultry houses. The widespread use of antibiotics to counteract these threats, as with all livestock, is contributing to the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance. A 2013 Consumer Reports investigation of raw, ground turkey meat revealed that 69 percent of samples tested contained the bacteria enterococcus and 60 percent contained E. coli, both of which are associated with fecal contamination; 80 percent of the enterococcus and and 61 percent of the E. coli were resistant to three or more groups of closely related antibiotics.
Adding to the health threats, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) just updated its poultry inspection rules, speeding up slaughterhouse inspection lines for turkey from 51 birds per minute to 55, while halving the number of federal inspectors per line from two to one. Theoretically, the rule makes it so that USDA inspector can focus on food-safety issues, testing for pathogens like Salmonella, and leaving the responsibility for visible "quality" issues like blemishes, abscesses and sores to the plant's owners. But visible defects can indicate dangerous contamination as well, according to Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. Yet for federal inspectors now given scant more than a second per bird, he said, "it's virtually impossible to pick up anything” in terms of defects or fecal contamination. And the need to process bigger birds more quickly, Corbo argues, makes the already dangerous and grueling job of working in a poultry plant more difficult -- yet another ethical stumbling block en route to the mass-produced turkey, for those keeping track.
There's no denying, on the other hand, that factory-farmed turkeys are incredibly efficient: They require just 2.5 pounds of feed in order to put on a pound of body weight, while the feed-conversion ratio for heritage breeds can be as high as 4-to-1. From a carbon footprint perspective, they're much lighter on the planet than other forms of meat, particularly beef. But while some may celebrate the week(s) following Thanksgiving with turkey sandwiches and other dishes that make use of the leftovers, a lot of that hard-earned efficiency is lost in the uneaten meat that goes to waste. The USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that when consumers bring home turkey, a full 35 percent of the edible meat, through a combination of cooking, spoilage and plate waste, is lost. One reason why turkey is used so much less efficiently than chicken (which has an estimated "loss rate" of just 15 percent), the ERS report posits, may be precisely because it's typically eaten on holidays, when, according to the report, people faced with mountains of leftovers may be more inclined to discard them. Dana Gunders with the Natural Resources Defense Council calculates that about 204 million pounds of turkey are thrown away on this one day alone -- it's by far the most wasted food on the Thanksgiving table. Into the garbage with the excess meat go the resources used to produce it; despite that efficiency, it adds up to some 1 million tons of CO2 and 105 billion gallons of water.
One other consequence of getting a big fat bird on as many American Thanksgiving tables as possible? It's argued that they just don't taste as good. Modern Farmer traces the rise of today's ubiquitous broad breasted white through the corresponding decline of flavor. The article quotes culinary historian Andrew F. Smith, who notes that “Americans consistently choose lower prices and greater quantity in their food," -- evidence that our conception of "value" relies mainly on poundage, and a good indicator of the growing importance of gravy.
Can it still be Thanksgiving without turkey? Provided you're willing to pay, there'll always be a way to opt out of the system without giving up the tradition altogether. Heritage turkeys are a slow-growing, free-range, premium breed that maintain many of their wild characteristics; your favorite farm-to-table chef is certain to be serving one this year. But not only are they up to six times as expensive as the standard Butterball bird, they are in incredibly short supply: only 30 to 40 thousand are raised in the U.S. Compare that to our demand for 46 million conventional turkeys on Thanksgiving day alone. Heritage turkeys are never going to be a solution for anyone but the the .01 percent, meaning they're not really a solution at all.
This is the problem we run into again and again when we talk about the way Americans -- and, increasingly, people around the world -- eat, particularly when it comes to meat. We can't all eat the way we'd like to without sacrificing safety, ethics and the planet, and our attempts to do so are the very definition of unsustainable.
What's left is a challenge not to practicality, but to our imaginations. How can it still be Thanksgiving without turkey? In his 2009 book "Eating Animals," Jonathan Safran Foer takes a hard-line position against consuming anything with a face, but raises a point for the holiday bird that's particularly salient here. Of all the meals we eat throughout the year, he writes, "Thanksgiving dinner is the one we try most earnestly to get right. It holds the hope of being a good meal, whose ingredients, efforts, setting and consuming are expressions of the best in us."
And so “more than any other food," Foer continues, "the Thanksgiving turkey embodies the paradoxes of eating animals: what we do to living turkeys is just about as bad as anything humans have ever done to any animal in the history of the world. Yet what we do with their dead bodies can feel so powerfully good and right.”
If Thanksgiving truly is a time for mindful consumption, then turkey isn't the making of the holiday -- it's its undoing. Remove it from the center of the feast, and what we end up with can end up being even more meaningful than what we've given up.