Turkey Accounting: Measuring the Cost of an American Original

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There are big bucks in birds.

In 2005, over 264 million turkeys were sold, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists it as a $3.2 billion industry, up from $2.82 billion in 2000. Most of these sales were of the Broad Breasted White turkeys which became popular in the 1950's and 60's, although a growing number of producers now cater to the all natural and/ or free range bird.

The U.S. turkey industry has had huge growth in the last 20 years. This year American consumption is expected to be 16.6 pounds per person, making it the number four protein of choose. Because of the nutritional value, turkey is no longer just a holiday purchase.

Benjamin Franklin had an appreciation for the bird which he described in a 1784 letter to his daughter. "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been Chosen as the Representative of our Country [...] in truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm yard with a red Coat on."

Turkey companies usually control or contract all phases of the production and processing, from breeding to retail. Technical advances in genetics and artificial insemination have helped develop a bird that produces more meat on less feed and in less time than other domestic meat producing animals, but some consumers feel this has resulted in loss of flavor. It generally takes 75-80 pounds of feed to raise a 30 pound Tom, which is often processed into cutlets, franks and deli meat. Ground turkey has had the greatest sales growth in the last decade.

Top producing states are:

  1. Minnesota (44,5 million)
  2. North Carolina (36 million)
  3. Arkansas (29 million)

The industry employs 20-25,000 people and many more thousands in related industries.

Exports were 569 million pounds last year, growing from 1.2 percent in 1990, to 10.3 percent in 2005. The top markets are:

  1. Mexico (353.8 million pounds)
  2. China (23 million pounds)
  3. Russia (19.9 million pounds)

The 2005 average price was $1.07 per pound, with specialty producers getting about $4 to $8 and many are sold out early with advance orders.

The native North American wild turkey, from which all domesticated turkeys descend, was bred with other varieties, both here and in Europe. By 1998, these birds, now called heritage turkeys, were all but extinct. Slow Food, started in Italy, together with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), became dedicated to saving these birds through small breeders.

"The Slow Food Movement [is] a defiant determination to preserve unprocessed, time-intensive food from being wiped off the culinary map," according to the New York Times Magazine. Breeders and consumers are concerned with the unknown hazards of the genetically modified foods available today and this has resulted in a small but growing and more expensive, natural product, which fans say offers more taste.

These birds breed naturally and have a slower growth rate, which accounts for the taste. They are raised without hormones, steroids, additives or antibiotics which are present in the dominant Broad Breasted Whites that account for over 90 percent of birds raised. The new breed of producer is often sold out months ahead of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The popularity of the movement is evidenced by the international growth of the Slow Food community. Their meeting in late October in Turin, Italy, included 1600 food communities from 130 countries, renowned chefs, as well as representatives from U.S. academic institutions. The web site, www.slowfoodusa.org, lists suppliers by state.

Heritage Foods USA, the marketing arm of Slow Food, states that "33% of livestock varieties have disappeared or are near disappearing" and that just thirty plants now feed almost 95% of the world's population. Their website, www.heritagefoodsusa.com, was sold out of Thanksgiving turkeys when AccountingWEB checked availability early in November. The prices ranged from $119 for an 8-10 pound bird, to $209 for a 22-24 pound fresh bird and all come with a numbered, traceable certificate detailing the growth of each individual bird. The popularity of the Heritage turkeys indicates that a growing number of innovative farmers and consumers with discriminating palates, are preserving a part of American history.

Whatever your holiday food of choice when families traditionally gather, give thanks and enjoy the earth's bounty.

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