Kresge Library News: Wild Turkey Chase - Researching Thanksgiving Trivia
November 23, 2011
Wild Turkey Chase - Researching Thanksgiving Trivia
With the annual food festival of over-eating known as Thanksgiving fast approaching, the weekly trip to the grocery store was an even bigger event than usual. The store was packed with people despite the home football game and packed with food, especially turkey. An entire range of open freezer shelving, plus an end refrigerator shelf in the local Meijer were bursting with turkeys, the main course for many on Thanksgiving.
All of this poultry got me to wondering about where all of these turkeys come from? Why do they pump them full of an 8% solution of water, salt and spices? How many turkeys actually get cooked on a typical Thanksgiving day? How the turkeys feel about all of this? And why am I doing all of this shopping, planning and cooking again? So I did what any good librarian would do, I went out in search of some answers. I felt pretty confident that I could answer the first 3 with no problem. The turkeys' and my own psychology question were going to be a bit tougher.
Following my first instinct, I did a crappy Google search. I love starting my research with a crappy Google search! Even if I don't find the answer, it usually sets me on the path to where the answer can be found. Oh what did we do before Google?!? (That is a story for another day, but I assure you it wasn't pretty.)
A search for 'number of turkeys sold thanksgiving' without the quotes, brought back "About 482,000 results" which in my mind is too many to deal with or even comprehend. So, I tried again with quotes and got only 4 links, all from 1990. So it looks like less is more in this case; less strict search = more, but better results. Definitely NOT what I learned in Library School.
The first result from Infoplease.com had my answer - "According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving". I like this answer. They gave me a source and a link to it (well, not to the actual page where the answer came from, but at least they got me pointed in the right direction). Most other people would be satisfied with that answer, but not me. I need to see the data for myself, so I took a trip over to the USDA to see what I could find knowing full well it may take a while to track it down. I am about to enter the labyrinth of US government data bureaucracy on the Internet. I hope I am back in time to start cooking that turkey!
A quick search of the USDA site for 'turkey' leads me off to the Turkeys Raised page of the USDA's Economics, Statistics, and Market Information National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), a subdivision of the USDA (talk about your bureaucracy labyrinth!). The US produced 248 million turkeys this year, up 2 percent from 2010. Six states produce two-thirds of the turkeys: Minnesota tops the list with 46.5 million; North Carolina and Arkansas tie for second with 30 million each; Missouri - 18 million; Virginia - 17.5 million; Indiana - 16 million. Now I know where the turkeys come from! But I still don't know where Infoplease.com got their number, so it's back to USDA page to search.
But first a detour. This happens a lot when you start researching something mildly interesting. The NASS page stated that this was an archive and that the official website was elsewhere, so I had to follow. At the main NASS page I found that I could browse by topic, so I worked my way down the subject headings to Livestock and Animals > Animals & Products > Poultry > Turkeys. Wow! Who knew that there was so much data on turkeys (and other livestock). I can find out production measured in dollars per pound, measured in dollars, measured in head. I can also get counts by type of bird, fryers or roasters. I can see how many were slaughtered, condemned, or lost to death. I can also count how many of the condemned had things like bruises, tuberculosis and tumors. I can make spreadsheets and see charts and graphs. I can see that in 2010 3.6 billion pounds of turkey were produced with a value of 4.4 billion dollars. I can see that there are just over 500 million pounds of turkey in Cold Storage Stocks. I could have a data field day! But I still don't have that illusive consumption number for Turkey Day.
I also decided to take a look at the Overview of the U.S. Turkey Industry. Unfortunately, the report was from 2007, so I decided to try the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry category. Here I found a link to the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook which then led me to the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry:Tables and something labeled "Quarterly red meat, poultry, and egg supply and disappearance and per capita disappearance". I couldn't let that one pass, especially since there was a spreadsheet for turkey disappearance. I could not imagine what they were talking about. Where were the turkeys disappearing to? Were they being abducted by aliens, turning into zombies, or just walking off the farm?
Well, the spreadsheet was no help, but it did give some interesting numbers: 5,082,000,000 pounds of turkey disappeared in 2010. But to where? Well, it appears that it disappeared into people's stomachs. According the to Documentation for the Food Availability Data System,
ERS's food availability data are often referred to as food disappearance data because the data represent the resulting food supply after food "disappears" into the food marketing system. ERS calculates the residual of a commodity’s total annual available supply after subtracting measurable uses, such as farm inputs (feed and seed), exports, ending stocks, and industrial uses. The annual data series includes per capita food availability estimates, which are useful for studying food consumption trends because they are a proxy for actual food intake.
Ok, so I know where the turkeys disappeared to and I know how many pounds disappeared, but I don't have a head count. I can sort of put the numbers together by looking at the data for the number of turkeys slaughtered in September and October (20,437,000 and 23,264,000 respectively) which I would hope would be the only ones in the stores for sale during the Thanksgiving season. But at this point, I think that I am done with the USDA. I could either call their turkey expert and ask where that number came from, or I could head on over to the National Turkey Federation and see what data they have for me.
The National Turkey Federation is "the national advocate for all segments of the turkey industry, providing services and conducting activities which increase demand for its members' products by protecting and enhancing their ability to profitably provide wholesome, high-quality, nutritious products." About NTF. They have all sorts of industry information and a slide show on turkey production (I'm not too sure I want to watch that). They also have a Turkey Facts & Trivia page, which is where I headed for some Turkey Stats. While this page has a lot of info on how much turkey is consumed, where it is produced and who the largest producers are, it did not give me a number for turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving, which I think was my original quest.
So it was back to the Trivia section to try out the Turkey History & Trivia page. And indeed, I did find an answer. The National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, and 19 million at Easter. With two pretty reliable sources providing a similar answer, I can say with confidence that about 45 million turkeys are cooked for Thanksgiving. At this point, I had to make myself stop researching. I know there is so much more information that I could find which will lead to more questions, which leads to more research, but I have to get cooking!
The National Turkey Federation also has tips for consumers about what to do with the 5 billion pounds of turkey they eat every year (that is 16.4 pounds per person), including some tips on how to deep fry your turkey. As long as no one is taking lessons from William Shatner on frying their turkey, I think we can all have a safe and happy turkey-filled holiday.
As for me and the turkeys, I am pretty sure about how we feel about the whole affair. The turkeys definitely think the whole thing is a bad idea and that we should focus on something else, like chicken or broccoli. Now that my shopping is done, I remembered why I was doing this again, so I can spend 3 entire days cooking food that will be gobbled up in about 20 minutes. At least I won't have to do the dishes!
Who knew we were all such turkey gluttons! Oh and i love how you cited the Shatner video!
Posted by: kblurr at November 23, 2011 12:26 PM
"The National Turkey Federation is "the national advocate for all segments of the turkey industry." Even the giblets segment and the wattles segment?
Also, I love the concept of "food disappearance." Thanks for the holiday search fun!
Posted by: caross at November 29, 2011 02:02 PMLogin to leave a comment. Create a new account.