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Turkeys Have Gotten Bigger And It's Not Because Of Stuffing


Not to get personal, but how big is your turkey? Tonight, my family is sitting down to a 20-pounder, which seemed big to me until I learned that the average Turkey is now 31 pounds. That's twice as heavy as the typical turkey was in 1960.

Alexis Madrigal wrote about the steady growth of American turkeys for The Atlantic, and he joins us now. Welcome and happy Thanksgiving.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Thank you, same to you.

SHAPIRO: Why have American turkeys grown so much so fast?

MADRIGAL: Quantitative breeding - it has been a scientific program that has been going on over decades to increase the size and the efficiency with which the birds convert feed into meat that we eat.

SHAPIRO: So we're not talking about genetic splicing or, like, genetically modified organisms? You're just talking about getting the fatter birds to breed with the fatter birds to make more fatter birds.

MADRIGAL: Traditional breeding techniques, although we should say, it's not just really, you know, this sort of bigger birds breeding with bigger birds. It's a few very large toms - you know, sort of male birds - being bred with large, large numbers of hens.

And it's true across all livestock. It's true in chicken. It's true in cattle that this has really been the way. And if you think about it, if every person in America had a child with a 7-foot man, it's pretty likely that that next generation would be much bigger.

SHAPIRO: You write that as big as turkeys are now and as fast as they get big, it's as though humans reached adulthood at age 10 and averaged 300 pounds per person.

MADRIGAL: It's a pretty amazing feat of scientific breeding. Sometimes I call it - to my friends - hyper-domestication because there's, obviously, these analogies to what humans originally did with these animals to turn them into, you know, kind of human adjuncts.

But this process has really been market-driven. It's been driven by, how do producers who create these animals make money? And how do they reduce their costs while increasing the meat that they sell?

SHAPIRO: This must have negative consequences for the animals, right?

MADRIGAL: Yeah, I mean, there's definitely some problems. They have skeletal problems. Sometimes, in some animals, there are fertility problems that the animals have.

And I think one of the key changes of the last 10 years is that the producers have started to recognize this and have started to not just go for the biggest possible bird, but to incorporate a broader set of traits into what they're going for with their flocks.

SHAPIRO: So the chart has been pretty steady where birds have added about a quarter pound every year for the last few decades. Can this go on indefinitely?

MADRIGAL: You know, it's interesting. You know, about 10 years ago, I looked into this and it seemed as if around 30 pounds, there might be something of a limit or that things would slow down. And things have slowed down a little bit, but they keep notching up.

And I think the real question is whether we're going to hit sort of the genetic limit that these - just these turkeys can get no bigger, or the market will eventually say, OK, we don't need any bigger turkeys, thanks. And I think eventually we will reach that limit. I don't think we'll have 80-pound turkeys in 50 years (laughter), but no one knows really where that line is. So check back in 10 years.

SHAPIRO: Twenty pounds is going to be enough for the people at my table tonight. How big is yours?

MADRIGAL: We're actually not eating turkey.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MADRIGAL: But I love turkey. I do love turkey. It's just my brother-in-law and other family members decided they wanted to have beef this year.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Thanks a lot, and happy Thanksgiving.

MADRIGAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.