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Why Have Thanksgiving Turkeys Gotten So Big?

Thanksgiving turkeys have ballooned in size due to selective breeding, aimed at meeting consumer demand for more white meat. This practice has led to birds that grow quickly and yield larger breasts. But what impact does this have on the turkeys' well-being and the taste of our holiday centerpiece? Join us as we examine the consequences of supersized poultry.

Growing up to be Thanksgiving dinner in America has become a thankless job. Back in 1929, a typical turkey weighed just 13.2 pounds (6 kg). The average holiday bird has more than doubled in size since then, surpassing 30 pounds (13.6 kg) in 2013.

This increase in weight has caused turkeys to grow so large and breast-heavy that they have difficulty standing upright, have the lost the ability to fly, and can no longer procreate the old-fashioned way. So turkeys today are artificially inseminated by hand, using a process that had become widespread by the 1960s.

The truth about turkeys:

  • The insemination process “adds a whole new level of efficiency,” explained Ohio State University breeder John Anderson. “You can spread (the male’s semen) over more hens. It takes the lid off how big the bird can be.”

  • Demand for turkey is greater than ever. Americans ate 16 pounds (7.3 kg) of turkey per person in 2014, and turkey consumption has increased by more than 110 percent since 1970, the National Turkey Federation says.

  • USDA regulations prevent turkey farmers from giving the birds hormones. And as of January 2017, US farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics for growth purposes. Antibiotics can only be used to prevent disease.

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Discussion Comments

anon1004755

As a pastured poultry turkey raiser a couple decades ago, we raised turkey breeds which could get in the low to mid twenty pound range (and a couple breeds could reach 35 pounds) -- if we kept them that long.

Most people wanted 14 to 16 pound turkeys and that is what we provided them. The economics of turkey raising are that the longer we keep them growing, the higher the price per pound -- in addition to the greater number of pounds.

If the average turkey poundage has gone up, it is because customers both want larger birds, and are willing to pay for that greater size

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    • The average size of a Thanksgiving turkey is now over 30 lbs (13.6 kg) -- more than double what it was in the 1930s.
      The average size of a Thanksgiving turkey is now over 30 lbs (13.6 kg) -- more than double what it was in the 1930s.