Thanksgiving is synonymous with eating turkey. According to this handy guide on the holiday’s history, "by 1916, Thanksgiving was referred to in writings as Turkey Day due to the popularity of the bird at the traditional feast... [and] the per capita consumption of turkey has increased from 1.7 pounds in 1935... to 20 pounds per person per year [today]."
So with turkey season in full flight, Butterball rocked the fresh turkey market this week when they announced that they’ll be shipping out “half as many large, fresh never-frozen turkeys to retailers this year. The company says many of its birds had trouble gaining weight during the production process. And though the cause of the problem remains a mystery, food distributors say their orders for turkeys 16 pounds and bigger have been slashed in half. Sixteen pounds is the national average for Thanksgiving holiday turkeys making this shortage a particularly concerning problem... Butterball produces approximately 41 million turkeys each year, accounting for 16 percent of the entire U.S. market. On Thanksgiving, nearly 1 out of every 4 turkeys consumed is a Butterball bird."
Curiously, Butterball's "mysterious" production problem echoes the plight of early Pilgrim settlers when the seeds they brought with them failed to produce a sufficient harvest. The Wampanoag Native Americans introduced them to indigenous foods such as corn and squash and taught them to hunt local fish and game. The Wampanoag obviously had a friendly policy toward new immigrants -- one that they likely came to regret, but I digress.
The fact that Butterball doesn't know why their current flock has failed to grow is, to my thinking, cause for alarm. NBC News claims that "like many other turkey producers, Butterball feeds its birds antibiotics to prevent and treat illnesses, which can occur from living in cramped quarters. The use of antibiotics, which also promote growth in livestock, has been the subject of concern that it could lead to antibiotic-resistant germs."
Want a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving dinner? Butterball's shortage may inadvertently move you to a higher altitude in sourcing your bird. Go organic. For that matter, go organic and local. I ordered a fresh turkey last weekend from a nearby farm, a bird that has spent its life running around outdoors, eating organic grain, and has never been fed hormones or antibiotics. Why? Because no matter how dumb a mere turkey may seem in our anthropomorphic way of thinking, it deserves a life consistent with its evolution. I don't consume hormones or antibiotics (directly or indirectly), and compared with a commercially confined and drugged bird, organic livestock tastes 10 times better.
If you're not convinced, consider this USDA brochure that states that “organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified."
Raising a healthy animal costs more to be sure, and you may have to pay between $4 to$5 per pound for a fresh, organic turkey. But you'll have a superbly delicious meal at Thanksgiving, and your liver, kidneys, and immune system will be thankful too.