The Painful Trials of Turkeyhood

I've been told that turkeys look forward to Thanksgiving Day and similar holiday dinners.  They dream of becoming the central attraction, star of the show, recipient of boisterous "aaahhhhs" at a festive dinner table.  Alas, the end is not always so glorious.  In May and June of 2015, avian flu caused the demise of some 48 million birds.  According to the Chicago Tribune, 7.7 million of them were turkeys. Furthermore, some turkeys who did make it to the dinner table were first flattened (spatchcocked) and, as a result, were less impressive than their fatter brothers.  (More about this weird method of preparing a turkey a bit later.)


All this turkey talk is still relevant even though our most celebrated turkey day is almost/already in the past. Americans are likely to cook the big bird not just in late November but for other winter special occasions when there's a crowd to serve.  (Unless the host is into outdoor turkey frying, turkeys are not the menu of choice in the summer.  No one wants the oven on for hours on a hot summer day.)


Avian flu and the cost of Thanksgiving dinner this year


Our thanks to food scientist  Dr. Catherine Cutter, who reminded us about the avian flu epidemic, which wreaked havoc with poultry and egg production in the U.S. this year. Fortune magazine  called it "the worst bird flu outbreak in U.S. history." According to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, 48 million turkeys and laying hens in 21 states died from the highly pathogenic H5N2  avian influenza."


The avian flu outbreak wiped out millions of birds in the Midwest.  In Greater Minnesota, the disease caused estimated losses of about $310 million in poultry production and in related businesses. Losses in wages for workers in the poultry industry in the Minnesota area were about $450,000.


The disease was found in wild birds, commercial flocks, and a small number of backyard flocks.  The symptoms ranged from mild (with few deaths or none) to an epidemic that spread rapidly and killed large numbers. 


How did all this epidemic affect the cost of Thanksgiving dinner?  It increased it a little, but not as much as you'd expect.  According to ABC News, the average cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 has been about $49 since 2011.  This year, the cost of the typical meal topped $50 for the first time, the Chicago Tribune reported, $50.11 compared to $49.41 in 2014.  (The figures come from the American Farm Bureau Federation.)


 What about the price of turkey?  The Chicago Tribune says, based upon the farm group's statistics, turkey prices jumped 6.4 percent, so a 16 lb. turkey cost about $23.04, up from $21.65.

Why didn't turkey prices rise more dramatically?  An ABC News report pointed out two reasons:

1) "Most of the birds destined to grace Thanksgiving tables this year already were born, slaughtered and frozen before the outbreak. Frozen whole turkeys make up as much as three-quarters of the Thanksgiving market."  2) Many supermarkets lower turkey prices to draw consumer into stores.   "Frozen hens averaged $1.08 per pound as of Nov. 6, down from $1.69 three weeks earlier, though up from 89 cents a pound a year ago." The prices of  fresh turkeys increased more than frozen ones.




This procedure  was a bit of a celebrity in 2014, when its photos and description were widespread on the Internet.  Perhaps you missed all this publicity, as I did.  Shelf Life Advice is grateful to Dr. Timothy Bowser (one of this site's Advisory Board members), who brought it to our attention, defined it, and even provided a link to a photo.


Here's Dr. Bowser's definition of the procedure: "Spatchcocking involves removing the backbone of a turkey (or some other bird) and then flattening it out on a tray, breast side up."


I wondered why anyone would do such a cruel (not to mention messy) surgical procedure on a harmless, helpless animal.  Here's Tim's answer: "Advantages:  The turkey cooks faster and more evenly because it has a lower profile (flatter shape), all of the skin is on top, so it can crisp better. Disadvantages:  You lose the traditional “Norman Rockwell” visual presentation of a plump, round turkey on a platter."


To see a nicely browned, spatchcocked bird, go to "10 Alternative Ways to Cook a Turkey" and scroll down  to the 6th way.  The article points out that some chefs put a brick on top of the bird to keep it flattened.


Google points out that spatchcocking has a more general meaning than mutilating a bird: it means to add a phrase, sentence, clause, etc. in a context where it is inappropriate, for example, "a new clause has been spatchcocked into the bill."  Shelf Life Advice won't mind if, while serving a turkey dinner, you entertain  your guests with this linguistic gem.


To explain the photo accompanying this article:

 The photo was used before on an article posted Nov. 20, 2014 and entitled "Thanksgiving Dinner: Is there anything new?"  That article explains that turkey had been unjustly accused of causing sleepiness.  Yes, turkey does contain tryptophan, a brain chemical that helps people to relax.  However, many other foods contain the same chemical, many in larger amounts than turkey. Furthermore,  tryptophan cannot put diners to sleep unless it has the assistance of foods high in carbohydrates. To learn more about this phenomenon, click on the link above.  Then, you can safely attribute Thanksgiving fatigue to overeating, boring relatives, stress, or sitting at the dinner table too long. 



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences

Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering "What the worst bird flu outbreak in U.S. history means for farms" "10 Alternative Ways to Cook a Thanksgiving Turkey"

Chicago Tribune, "Cost of Thanksgiving diner hits record," November 24, 2015.  "Poultry: Avian Influenza" "Extension analysis: Economic impact of avian flu at nearly $310 million as of May 11"


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