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How Science Has Built a Better Thanksgiving Turkey


Super Turkey


Image: USDA
Thanksgiving is time to give thanks and eat turkey. The National Turkey Federation estimates that over ninety-five percent of Americans will eat turkey this Thanksgiving. The vast majority of turkeys consumed during the Thanksgiving holidays are domestic turkeys. For several decades researchers have been using science to build a better Thanksgiving turkey. These techniques involve selective breeding and nutrition management.

How did science make that turkey so big?

Many people assume that those big twenty pound turkeys in the grocery stores are a result of hormone injections. This is not the case. Prior to the 1950's a synthetic hormone, diethylstilbestrol, was injected in poultry to produce more muscle. More muscle means more good meat. This hormone however, was found to cause cancer and birth defects in humans. As a result, the use of the hormone in poultry was banned in the 1950's. Additionally, in the 1970's the Environmental Protection Agency made it illegal to use the hormone in any food animals.

Today's big turkeys owe their size to the incorporation of a special diet, vaccinations, and selective breeding. Turkeys with the desired characteristics (big breast muscles) are bred, passing along their genes to their offspring. The turkeys are fed a diet that is conducive to muscle building and growth. They are also kept healthy and free from respiratory and intestinal disease through vaccinations.

The product of this type of breeding is a big-breasted "super turkey". While this is the desired result for consumers, the turkeys themselves face problems due to their bulked-up bodies. Besides the fact that they make for a more desirable meal, the big breast muscles on these turkeys make it too difficult for mating. The turkeys must be artificially inseminated. In addition, the mother turkey is never in contact with her young. This means that the young chicks don't get a chance to pick up on survival skills or behavioral clues from the mother as they would in the wild. These specially bred, domesticated turkeys are totally dependant on breeders for survival.

Understanding scientific concepts such as genetics and selective breeding has made eating turkey on Thanksgiving more enjoyable. Due to diet and vaccinations, today's turkeys are bigger and healthier than ever. This means a safer, more nutritious Thanksgiving meal for us all. Happy Thanksgiving!

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