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What’s going on at Butterball right now?

I started thinking about Thanksgiving from a turkey perspective today — I’m cooking, for probably about five or so people, and economic times are lean, so I wanted to find myself a steal. That got me thinking about the economics of turkey production, and the broader total contribution of Thanksgiving to the U.S. economy because, as an American, I want to quantify everything and anything I possibly can, so that I can tell people on the day itself, “Did you know that annually, Thanksgiving contributes $14.2 million to the underlying U.S. economy?” and sound like a badass in the process. Unfortunately, most things I Googled on this topic were crappy blogs (like this one!) with poor writing (like this one!) and mostly unsubstantiated facts and figures (at least I link!). I did a little better with some research on Butterball, which seemed logical because they’re the biggest turkey producer in America right now — 1 out of every 5 on the table this year will come from them — and they produce about a billion pounds of turkey per year.

The first thing we should probably get into is this potential turkey shortage this year; it’s been widely reported, including here, here and here. The problem is mostly Butterball — Perdue was quick to note, on that first link, that it would have no problem meeting demand — and the problem is mostly in the fresh (non/never-frozen) bird category. The main stated reason for the issue is a lack of weight gain on some farms; that’s a little bit weird, because between 1965 and 2011, turkey weights increased somewhere between 50% and 65%. Mother Jones has some theories on the weight gain issue, one being that the rising price of corn (what turkeys are predominantly fed) caused people to shirk and feed turkeys something else — in turn causing them to grow (or fatten, if we’re being real) slower. It’s become a mystery because even people in the industry, citing how tightly the production factors are controlled, admit they “can’t think of a rational explanation” for what’s going on.

The general way this all works is that Butterball produces turkeys much of the year who are slaughtered and frozen, but in October/November, they shift more into fresh turkey production. None of it is necessarily humane, as this video will attest:

Butterball is a private company based out of Garner, North Carolina, but you can get an understanding of their revenues and profits from a few recent actions.  They’re now owned by Seaboard Corporation, which is publicly traded. In 2012, Seaboard’s turkey segment was $38.4 million, up 58 percent from 2011, which was Butterball’s first year under Seaboard; overall, the Butterball acquisition was part of a 4.5% jump in revenue to about $1.5 billion. Butterball bought a packing company and three new feed mills after being acquired.

To go back to the humane treatment aspect for a second: there was an article in this year’s Food Issue of The New Yorker (it’s under paywall online) about “food we love too much to eat.” The basic idea is simple: we eat certain animals, and tolerate an understanding of their treatment before being slaughtered as meals for us, because (in part) we assume them to be stupider animals worthy (maybe not the right word) of this. There are about 61 million Google results for “Why do we eat turkey?” topped by this article from Slate Like most things with food and tradition, it was ultimately a combination of freshness, economics, and availability at the time the tradition unfolded (remember, people used to consider lobster disgusting). A Google search for “Are turkeys dumb?” yields about 1.09 million results; the most relevant is this piece from Oregon State University. In short, no one’s confusing them with humans, but they’re not necessarily dumb animals either. There’s also a strong belief that turkeys will quite literally drown in a rainstorm; that isn’t 100 percent true, though.

Also, the entire Thanksgiving feast motif is likely incorrect:

(All this said, I plan to do a post over the weekend on the best possible turkey recipes out there, mostly because I need to research that stuff myself.)

By the way, Butterball has a Turkey Talk hotline — it was apparently established in 1981, initially — and a woman named Carol has been working for it for almost its entire duration. She’s got amazing tales (“Why da fuq is my turkey on fire?”) and you can get them all here. Apparently now, in 2013, men will be answering for the first time ever.

Let’s endeavor to tie some of these themes together. Is there a shortage? Yes, apparently there is. Will it drastically affect you? Probably not, although you may need to buy a frozen one on Saturday or Sunday (4 pounds = 1 day in the thawing process, so plan ahead). Is Butterball completely humane as an organization? In all likelihood, no, but is any food producer completely humane on base, considering they’re killing an animal to make money? Should we be eating turkey? Probably not even, but flipping the script on an entire American tradition that holds tremendous emotional value to others (“… seeing Mom preparing the turkey….”) is like reversing 190 oil tankers at once, so that’s not about to change. And finally, does it even really matter if you’re using Butterball or another brand, like a Jennie-O? Probably not even

Ted Bauer

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