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Where Technology and Turkey Meet this Thanksgiving

November 25, 2015

The thermostat is dropping, leaves are falling, and turkey is on the menu. As some last minute shoppers scramble to find a bird to roast this holiday season, a non-profit organization has launched a new website to help them:

The site, launched by Farm Forward, an organization dedicated to ending factory farming, aims to help farmers find a specific type of poultry and give them information about how the animal was raised, what medications were used, and what the animal ate.

Farm Forward collaborated to build the site alongside a number of groups such as animal welfare experts and farmers. The database features over 3,000 products found in grocery stores and gives each a grade on an A-to-F scale. Consumers might be disappointed when they find their favorite brand on the site, however. Certain brands that have been branded as an optimal choice for the concerned consumer only earn a C grade, including some organic products. Although the product may bear an appropriate USDA organic certification, the animal may still have limited access to outdoor areas, for example.

Taking three years to compile, the website was launched in part to respond to consumer frustrations over the multitude of misleading food product labels. One of the biggest buzzwords to hit the food world is “natural.” The US Food and Drug Administration, however, has not issued a definition of this term, leaving food companies free to define it as they wish and print it on virtually any label. While the FDA has recently requested comment from the public on how it should go about defining the term, has provided users with an interim glossary of terms that are commonly misconstrued by even the most careful consumer.

So, how many turkeys do Americans eat each year? According to a recent report, over 51 million turkeys are featured on Thanksgiving menus, representing one-fifth of the total amount of turkeys produced in the US on a yearly basis. Americans spend roughly $2.8 billion on the holiday meal, with turkeys costing roughly $1.15 per pound.

Even with a hand from, big families seeking big birds might come up short, however. Earlier this year, a record bout of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) devastated poultry populations in Iowa and other prime poultry producing states, resulting in a loss of over 7.5 million commercial turkeys, and some 35 million total fowl.

Although a large portion of frozen bird production was complete by the time the disease took hold, some Thanksgiving shoppers may notice that there are fewer large size birds available this year. They may also find that the cost of a fresh bird is a bit higher than in prior years, with some retailers restricting the number of birds each shopper can bag.

“The US has a very aggressive disease-monitoring process called the National Poultry Improvement Plan, which is a disease testing and monitoring program,” says Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association. According to Olson, technology plays a key role in helping NPIP work. “There’re all kinds of different technology used, whether it be testing materials or electronic submission of data,” he explains.

As poultry farmers attempt to recover from HPAI’s devastating blow, scientists like Andy Ramey are focused on finding a better way to identify, predict, and combat outbreaks of the disease, which primarily finds its way into domestic flocks when wild waterfowl make their southern migration. As a research wildlife geneticist with the US Geological Service, Ramey is tapping genetic sequencing to track HPAI’s path.

“We use genetic sequencing to investigate the way wild birds move avian influenza across the landscape,” says Ramey. “Right now, we use a next generation sequencing technique, which is just a faster way to generate sequences for Influenza A viruses. This allows us to optimize efficiencies.” The disease is primarily transmitted through waterfowl’s aquatic environment, which makes it easy for the birds to pass the virus among one another.

“If we determine patterns of where and how viruses are being dispersed, we might be able to gain some inference of where the virus may go next.” For poultry farmers, knowing when to expect a wave of HPAI and to crank up their biosecurity protocols could make all the difference.

Ramey and his team have come up with a clever way to spy on the migratory birds that may be responsible for the most recent HPAI outbreak. “We have put 9.5-gram satellite transmitters on some of these birds to see where they are moving across the landscape. We deployed the last batch in spring and many of these birds have spent the summer migrating through the mid-continent and up in the Dakotas and Canada,” says Ramey. “Right now we have birds in Saskatchewan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, and Texas.”

While Ramey keeps a vigilant watch on the USGS tracking radar, other public and private groups are searching for a way to keep US poultry healthy and better protected from another devastating outbreak. So, when you carve your turkey this year, take a moment to toast not only the farmers who made your meal possible but the scientists, too.

If you need another fun Thanksgiving fact to help you stump your family at the dinner table, there are 37 different cities in the US named Plymouth. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at AgFunder and AgFunderNews!

Image credit: smarman999 on Deviant Art

Have news or tips? Email [email protected]

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