Amongst traditional mainstays like string bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and questionable sweet potato and marshmallow concoctions, 46 million turkeys will take center stage on tables across the U.S. this Thanksgiving.
Before America gobbles through a good 20 percent of the annual turkey consumption on this last Thursday of November, here are six facts about the poultry star of our most indulgent holiday.
1. Turkey production has reached a 30-year low
In a September report, the USDA forecasts that only 235 million turkeys will be raised for consumption by the end of the year — the lowest it’s been since 1986. But don’t believe the gossip: higher wholesale prices aside, consumers didn’t have to fork over much extra cash this year.
And no, grocery stores didn’t run out of turkey.
So, what happened? Corn and soy crop yields were poor in 2012 and 2013, and the shortage led to extremely expensive feed in 2014. Since it takes about 80 pounds of feed to raise a single 30-pound turkey, some farmers were forced to cut down flocks to keep their businesses afloat. Luckily, corn and soy were abundant this year, which could mean that turkey farmers might be on the road to recovery by next Thanksgiving. The USDA lists current prices of corn and soy at $3.28 and $9.64 per bushel in October 2014, in contrast to $4.63 and $12.50 from last fall.
2. “Fresh” turkey must not be chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit
Because fresh turkey can’t be stored in cooler conditions, farmers and processing plants need to have the timing down right in order to raise, slaughter, and deliver a safe product to grocery stores for the holiday. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection advises that fresh turkey be consumed within one to two days from the date of purchase. Commercially raised turkey that is sealed and packaged can last longer.
On the other hand, turkeys destined for the freezer are “blast” frozen at subzero temperatures immediately after processing and will most likely still be edible by Thanksgiving 2015.
3. The turkey on your plate probably comes from one of these six states
Two-thirds of U.S. turkey production occurs in Minnesota, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, and Indiana. In a report published in September, the USDA listed Minnesota — home of Jennie-O Turkey Store, the second largest turkey processing company in the country — as the leading producer of turkey meat, with an estimated 45 million turkeys raised for slaughter this year. Arkansas was up four percent from last year with 29 million, pushing North Carolina into third place after production dropped 18 percent to 28 million.
4. President Obama pardoned two 50-pound tom turkeys yesterday
The pair, officially named Mac and Cheese (how regal!), spent a few nights at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C. before they were granted clemency in a presidential ceremony at the White House on Wednesday. The toms will live out the rest of their days at Morven Park in Virginia, where they will join Caramel, one of last year’s pardoned turkeys.
Sounds idyllic, right? Well, not quite.
Because commercially raised turkeys are bred for size, freedom tends to be short and sweet. In 2012, Cobbler and Gobbler, both 40 pounders, died only months after Thanksgiving. 2013’s Popcorn made it to July before succumbing to the summer heat.
5. Domesticated turkeys are getting plumper by the decade
According to a report by the USDA, the average weight of turkey produced in 2013 was 30.3 pounds, an increase in 1.3 pounds since 2008. If that doesn’t seem like a significant jump, consider the fact that in 1986, an average turkey was barely a solid 20 pounds. The Agricultural Statistics Service reported that turkeys are larger in size due to “genetic selection, technical advancements, and better production management.”
6. It’s probably not the tryptophan that’s making you sleepy
While the amino acid does help our bodies produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating sleep cycles, post-feast sluggishness is more likely caused by heaping portions of carbohydrate-heavy dishes rather than turkey meat. (Add a few glasses of wine to the mix, and you’ll be snoring before dessert is served.) And turkey isn’t the only food packing tryptophan — comparable amounts can be found in chicken and cheddar cheese.
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