Two news stories re-surface every Thanksgiving. Only one problem: They’re in direct conflict with each other, and consumers are supposed to swallow them both without any indigestion.
It’s that time of year again, when the food animal we ignore (but certainly consume) the other 51 weeks of the year suddenly becomes la cause célébrité.
Talking about turkey, of course. There are three themes firmly attached to the image of the bird that regularly resurface and to which we are urged to respond. Predictably, the messaging surrounding these themes is no more variable then the traditional dinner many of us enjoy the fourth Thursday of November every year.
The first one is rolled out in conjunction with the advent of the holiday season by animal activists, who never tire of thrashing turkey producers, believing with a fervor that recycling the same tired data will somehow make this year a November to remember.
Here’s how it goes (phrasing courtesy of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals): Until the 1950s, Thanksgiving turkeys were no different their wild counterparts. But then greedy poultry operators began selectively breeding birds for bigger size and faster growth — not because that would make sense economically but in a clever twist, the initiatives to improve production efficiency are always characterized as something had to be done “to meet Americans’ growing demand for meat.”
In other words, those overstuffed, meat-eating Americans who kept demanded more meat at cheaper prices — they’re the ones who are responsible for the horror that is contemporary turkey production.
What’s a poor producer to do? Turkey farmers began to breed bigger and heavier birds, but even that wasn’t enough. No, they had to genetically manipulate the way turkeys gained weight, so that more white meat could be marketed at higher prices. As a result, the meme continues, commercial turkeys can no longer stand upright, nor can they reproduce, which means we’re left to imagine that turkey farms consists of hundreds of couches where birds too fat to stand are flopped out scarfing down drug-laced feed until such time as they can herded into the slaughter plant.
Speaking of which, the other side of that contaminated coin is that even as turkey production became ever more unnatural, USDA abdicated its responsibility to protect Americans from the nightmare that contaminated turkey meat represents. Producers have now moved their operations indoors, activists point out, where they can cram even more birds into an ever-smaller footprint, which means more disease, more drugs, and more abuse, even while USDA allows greedy packers to speed up the lines to 55 birds a minute, while cutting back on the number of federal inspectors paid to stand there and watch the carcasses pass by.
The price is right
But as the same time that activists are demonizing the bird Ben Franklin lobbied to become the symbol of the new nation, a parallel story always emerges. Here’s the second Thanksgiving theme, which revolves around the classic “shopping cart” angle. The headline goes something like this: “Giving thanks is a little costlier (again) this year, but we can still be thankful that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is still very affordable.”
And then the story goes on to quote chapter and verse about the “good news” from USDA’s price surveys, as well as private-sector supermarket data disseminated by groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation.
For example: In 2014, the price of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 is estimated by the AFBF to cost $49.41, only 37 cents higher than in 2013, and that’s because dairy products, coffee and sweet potatoes (for the fan favorite marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole) cost slightly more this year.
“Turkey production has been somewhat lower this year, and wholesale prices are a little higher,” John Anderson, the American Farm Bureau Federation Deputy Chief Economist, said in a statement, noting, however, that many supermarket retailers use whole-bird turkeys as loss leaders to entice shoppers to purchase all the other (higher margin) Thanksgiving staples at their stores.
In terms of pricing, however, these seasonal stories rarely mention the most incredible economic statistic: In 1948, turkey prices averaged $4.46 a pound (adjusted for inflation). In 2012, by contrast, USDA estimated that the average price of whole-bird turkey was around 72 cents a pound.
That, I would argue is something of a holiday miracle. Is it any wonder that Americans followed suit when told by dietary flacks shilling for the Medical Industrial Complex to dump red meat and switch to poultry, since the cost to consumers was significantly less?
To be frank, I’m not buying the “you-can-feed-10-people-for-less-than-$50-bucks” proposition. But it is interesting to follow through on what the activists recommend for the hardcore carnivore, which is to buy locally raised, family-farmed, organically grown turkeys.
As an Associated Press story noted, that can shift the holiday cost calculation significantly: A 16-pound Certified Organic turkey (and that label’s no guarantee the bird was a raised in “free-range” conditions), can cost between $50 and $100, depending on how high-end of a marketer you care to engage.
Or you could order a complete, fully cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 12 people from Whole Foods Market. Price tag: $170.
That way, the consumer — not the bird — is the one who endures the suffering.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.