If there's one day when socially conscious do-gooders can be excused for letting the cares of the world slip away in a haze of tryptophan, it's Thanksgiving.
As major holidays go, Thanksgiving is remarkably worry-free, its main focus neither commercial nor ceremonial in nature. You don't have to come bearing gifts. You don't have to dress up. You don't have to stay up 'til midnight. Even religious worship is usually not de rigueur, unless you count prayer at dinner.
Honestly, unless you're the host, all you have to do on Thanksgiving is show up, watch football, and, well, eat. Right Ah, if only it were that easy.
Contemplating Your Turkey
Each Thanksgiving, that avian oddity known as the turkey - relegated to lunch-meat status for the rest of the year - emerges from ignominy to take its hallowed place at the center of the American dining table.
Roasted, basted, stuffed, and resplendent in all its deliciousness, the last thing that comes to mind when beholding the Thanksgiving turkey is anything not having to do with devouring the turkey itself.
But dozens of nonprofits do contemplate many aspects of your beautiful turkey long before it lands on your table. The issues they probe range from the environment (where did this turkey come from and how was it processed and distributed?) to health and safety (what's in my turkey?), animal rights (how was this turkey raised?), and workers/ and farmers' rights (who processed this turkey and how were they treated?).
Still hungry? Read on.
The Turkey Industrial Complex
The turkey business is a big one. The United States is the largest turkey producer in the world. According to the National Turkey Federation, turkey production in the U.S. has increased nearly 300 percent since 1970. The average American eats 18 pounds of turkey per year (apparently, not all of it on Thanksgiving). Last year, U.S. growers raised 271.7 million turkeys.
Determining exactly who holds the reins to the turkey industry isn't easy. It requires bouncing from one subsidiary to the next in search of the multinational mack daddy at the top of the literal food chain. Butterball, LLC became the countryaEU(tm)s largest turkey producer in 2006. Butterball processes 1.4 billion pounds of turkey every year in seven processing plants, and it employs 6,000 people in five states. Butterball is a subsidiary of Maxwell Farms, Inc. and Smithfield Farms, Inc., which, in turn, is an affiliate of the Goldsboro Milling Company. Turkey producers are big companies.
"Birds are a pain in the ass," declares Tim Gibbons, communications director at the nonprofit Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which advocates on agricultural policy in an effort to save family farms and support rural communities.
Raising poultry, Gibbons explains, presents production challenges that make it difficult for local growers to compete with big corporations.
"The poultry industry is so vertically integrated," he says - meaning that all phases of poultry production and processing are controlled by large corporations - "that the number of local lockers [small processing facilities] has dwindled in the last 20 years." Vertical integration makes it difficult or impossible for independent farmers and growers to enter the marketplace on their own terms. "Any family farms left are really working for the corporations instead of themselves," Tim told Blue Avocado.
The Long and Winding Road to Your Table
Because of this vertical integration, there is less connection between local farmers and their communities, and thus less money stays in local hands. Instead, turkey production is entirely centralized in a distant plant, or CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation), and this means that the likelihood of a consumer eating a locally grown turkey is remote - even in Gibbons' home state of Missouri, the fifth largest turkey-producing state in the nation.
The vast majority of all turkey consumed in the U.S. comes from one of twenty processing companies. This means that your Thanksgiving turkey has likely traveled some distance (which requires fossil fuels) to be stored and displayed in your local supermarket (more fossil fuels). It also means that the processing of your turkey has likely taken place on a massive scale at a giant facility, with considerable impact on the local environment.
Protect Our Woods (POW), a southern Indiana environmental nonprofit, monitors the impact of turkey production in Indiana's Dubois County, which has the highest number of turkey-producing CAFOs in the state. According to POW, not only do turkey CAFOs devalue the land itself, but they also compromise the air and water quality in the region due to animal waste.
Animal waste runoff contributes to high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and other pathogens in drinking water. Antibiotics and hormones from animal feedlots also appear in drinking water. As for air quality, the cloud of pathogens, insects and dust (comprising manure solids, dander, feathers, hair, and feed) from animal operations poses serious health hazards in and around CAFOs. Pollution costs are often borne by local communities.
"The smell of the turkey houses is terrible," says POW's acting president, Jeanne Melchior. "They produce a lot of odor. You can see mounds of manure stacked in the fields. They try to spread it or haul it off, but when it rains, it just runs into the rivers."
Jeanne told Blue Avocado that Governor Mitch Daniels is intent on making Indiana a big agricultural production state but does not adequately address the environmental ramifications of unchecked growth. "The poultry industry is expanding horribly, and there aren't any laws to stop them."
Nor is there much discernible nonprofit presence in the area. Even POW, which, as its name implies, was originally formed to address forest protection, struggles to maintain its membership and its influence on local agriculture.
"We try to talk to farmers," Jeanne says. Just the other day a grower added three new turkey houses within seeing and smelling distance of my sister's house. We protested, but it didn't make any difference."
No Picnic for Poultry Workers and Growers
As one can imagine, working conditions in CAFOs aren't so great either. POW reports that the U.S. meat and poultry processing plants have some of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry. CAFO workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, blood, fecal matter, poor ventilation, extreme temperatures, loud noise, narrow confines and dangerous machinery.
Meanwhile, poultry workers' wages have remained stagnant for thirty years. POWs 'website states that "the average poultry worker supporting two children qualifies for food stamps, low-income energy assistance and the like." According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), many poultry workers are immigrants who are ill-informed about workplace rights. Half of poultry workers nationwide are Latino; more than half are women.
Poultry growers (not to be confused with the parent processing companies) don't have it much better: UFCW reports that 71 percent of all poultry growers are independent contractors who earn below poverty-level wages, with most of the profit going to large corporations.
What's the alternative to this Dickensian agricultural universe? If you're thinking organic farming, that's only part of the answer.
According to author Michael Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin 2006), the term "organic (along with other fuzzy terms like "sustainable"), although codified in the Organic Foods Act in 1990 and applied to poultry in 1999 by the USDA, "has been stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and an alternative."
Pollan, ever the killjoy, reminds us that "free-range" birds are probably neither "free" nor "range" dwellers. He describes witnessing a free-range organic poultry shed that contained twenty thousand chickens, each with approximately two weeks of theoretical access (out of a total seven weeks of life) to a narrow, fifteen-foot wide grassy yard that no chicken actually visited. That's free-range.
Putting jargon aside, the American Humane Association maintains that "for little cost, food producers can follow animal welfare standards of practice" that emphasize humane environments, health, and natural diets for poultry. Sadly, these standards appear to be lacking throughout much of the turkey industry.
A New Food Culture?
While we may think that Big Agriculture is just a problem with our meat or produce, an organization called Slow Food USA thinks that something larger is going on. Slow Food USA's mission is to change the food system to emphasize better environmental and distribution practices. It does this by organizing community networks and educational programs to raise awareness of the social, economic and environmental impact of our food choices.
The impetus for the "slow food" movement (the opposite of fast food) is that something has gone awry in the American food system. Not only, the argument goes, are current food growing and harvesting practices harmful to the environment, animals and consumers, but our whole culture has changed in a way that is antithetical to community, to labor, to food, and even to taste. We have become a fast-food nation.
Slow food at its core is an idea, a cultural philosophy. Its guiding principle is quite basic, even hedonistic, and that is the notion that food is pleasurable. Hence, we all need to slow down, get our hands dirty, and enjoy.
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving, that annual celebration of food, family, friends, and the good old American turkey.
With any luck, this year, as we begin to feast on that 20-pounder, we may find ourselves chewing a little more slowly, and not just because of the tryptophan.
We may even pause for a minute to reflect: Hmm, a lot went into this turkey. Someone raised, killed, cleaned, packaged and delivered this bird to me. Someone rallied for cleaner and more local turkey production. Someone fought for better conditions for the worker, the consumer, and the turkey itself. Here, then, lies a picture-perfect product of the American food system, from start to finish.
We're lucky. Sort of.
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Bob Kim is an educational policy analystA living in Washington, DC. He was formerly a civil rights attorney specializing in poverty and housing issues, criminal justice, student rights and LGBT rights. In his spare time, he attempts to write fiction.