Commentary: Turkey of an argument

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Consider this opening to an email appeal from Farm Forward, and see if you can decipher their politics:

“Every Thanksgiving, we gather with our family and friends to celebrate what we’ve been thankful for during the past year. Thanksgiving also invites us to reflect on the food we put on the table. For those of us who oppose the cruelty and waste of factory farming, the traditional turkey (approximately 97% of turkeys are produced on factory farms) is an unbefitting centerpiece for the holiday.

“Absence of turkey can be a very positive thing,” says New York Times food columnist and author of Food Matters Mark Bittman. “Most people have roughly 360 dinners a year that have ‘absence of turkey.’ We eat it on Thanksgiving because we’re supposed to.”

(The appeal—shockingly!—is to fork over money for the cause, as if you didn’t know that).

Except for the very first sentence, I take exception to virtually every word in that statement.

It’s getting to be tiresome when critics routinely toss out the “factory farming” epithet, then follow up with “cruelty, waster, abuse, eco-damage”—even food safety complaints, as if the strict biosecurity and controlled environment in a modern growout facility were somehow the source of the food-borne illness with which we occasionally have to contend.

Mr. Bittman loves to style himself as a “critic,” like a movie reviewer, somebody who’s knowledgeable, objective, even-handed in his analysis of the issues affecting food production and nutrition. But his take on Thanksgiving—we eat turkey because “we’re supposed to”—is outrageous and blatantly biased. C’mon, Mark. We eat turkey on Thanksgiving because we enjoy it. Heck, we love it!

In fact, the reason that the other 359 dinners a year don’t feature whole-bird turkey more often is that the preparation and cooking required are laborious. Few people have the luxury of hours in the day to prepare a bird, stuff it and then get it in the oven four to five hours before dinner time.

Whenever supermarkets have specials on turkey breasts or when fresh turkey is pre-cooked and portioned, however, it sells remarkably well. The dearth of turkey at meal occasions other than the holidays is a matter of convenience, not culinary preference.

That’s because the enduring popularity of a roast turkey as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving is a testament to the value we assign to having nutritious—and delicious—meat on our plates during holiday meal. Far from being an “unbefitting centerpiece” on Thanksgiving, the turkey is a symbol of our gratitude for having abundant food and for the bounty we enjoy as Americans all 365 days of the year.

The evolution of production

Farm Forward, the organization marching in lockstep with Bittman, labels itself as a group that “implements innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farm animal suffering, and advance sustainable agriculture.”

One could make a convincing case that modern poultry production as it’s evolved over the past 50 years is a Exhibit A for “innovative strategies,” the result of which is the widespread availability of a highly nutritious animal protein food at incredibly affordable prices. Certain people may not approve of the direction that production has evolved, but there’s no denying that innovative techniques, specialized genetics and high-end technology all coalesced to yield the efficiency that is the hallmark of modern turkey production.

As for reducing farm animal suffering, those are murky waters. The diehards who complain the loudest about production practices, in fact, do not want them reformed, they want them eliminated. The only legitimate way to reduce animal suffering, if you listen to the activists, is to make sure none are ever domesticated, because that’s where they always focus: The horror of confining a cow in a feedlot or a pig in a barn. The painful, violent deaths that VIRTUALLY EVERY animal in the wild eventually faces seems not to matter, I guess because that’s the handiwork of God, not people.

By that logic, animals, if they were capable of connecting with the concept of giving thanks, ought be grateful they live in forests or fields where they’ll inevitably face one of the “big three:” starvation, predation or death from disease.

Because the idea of being fed, watered and kept warm and safe in someone’s barn is the equivalent of hell on earth.

Thank God so many wild animals never have to contemplate that awful fate.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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