Gobble Gobble – The Politics of Turkey

(I normally post on Saturdays, but it seemed fitting to release this ‘turkey politics’ post before Thanksgiving. I hope you like it!)

While Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon – of former Maricopa County Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio – was highly controversial, his second pardon was met with bipartisan support. On November 21, 2017, President Trump pardoned the turkey ‘Drumstick’, carrying on a tradition of pre-Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardons that began with President George H.W. Bush in 1989. (Some claim that the first turkey pardon was granted by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, and others say that President Lincoln was the first turkey pardoner, but these were ‘unofficial’ pardons and the tradition wasn’t picked up by their successors.)

“Drumstick, you are hereby pardoned.”

While President Trump’s pardon was good news for Drumstick, around 244 million other turkeys raised in the United States weren’t so lucky.[1] Those turkeys feed a growing demand, with U.S. turkey consumption at 16.7 pounds per person, more than double what it was in 1970. Even so, turkey is still by far the least popular of the Big Four meats, trailing pork (49.8 pounds per person), beef (53.9) and chicken (88.9) [2]. But that doesn’t mean that the turkey business is small potatoes: The value of U.S. turkey production in 2016 was $6.18 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.[3]

Back when the United States was a largely rural country and most food was produced by small, local farmers, food safety wasn’t much of an issue. But as the country grew, industrialized, and urbanized, horror stories about contaminated, adulterated, and mislabeled food and disgusting conditions in slaughterhouses began to mount.

In early 1906 Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle was published. In it, Sinclair graphically portrayed the horrific practices in slaughterhouses of the era. The public was shocked and outraged – so much so that even the decidedly business-friendly Congress of the day was forced to act.

On June 30, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, which called for wide-ranging regulation of food products and drugs as well as establishing the agency that would become the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On the same day, President Roosevelt also signed the Meat Inspection Act, which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to inspect and regulate meat.

Sinclair’s book shocked and outraged the American public

It might seem strange that Congress would break up food inspection authority instead of centralizing it in one place. There’s actually a good reason for it – at least a good political reason. The USDA had previously been given meat inspection authority under two not-so-good Meat Inspection Acts, passed in 1890 and 1891. As a general rule, once an agency gains authority over something, it fights to keep it because additional ‘turf’ means more power and a bigger budget. And so Congress decided that the path of least political resistance would be to leave meat inspection with the USDA and give everything else to the FDA.

As food regulation legislation proliferated over the years, Congress kept on parceling out authority to more federal agencies, for reasons that I’m sure seemed reasonable, or at least politically expedient, at the time. We’ve now reached a point where anyone who takes a close look at this system, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO), National Research Council (NRC), and Institute of Medicine (IOM), invariably concludes that the current system, one in which over a dozen different federal agencies are involved in food safety, is pretty screwy (I’m paraphrasing – but not that much).

Plenty of food safety reformers have called for a consolidation of the system, usually recommending that the FDA be given primary authority. It’s definitely a good idea, but there’s a big problem. Reorganizing government agencies is the sort of unglamorous work that sucks up a ton of time and invariably upsets a whole bunch of career bureaucrats without much of a political upside. There aren’t too many lawmakers whose hearts go all pitty-pat at the thought of administrative reorganization, and who can blame them? Imagine a politician campaigning on the basis of her tireless efforts to ‘consolidate regulatory authority’ – a message just about guaranteed to put voters to sleep.

Rules specific to turkey inspection are set down in the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) of 1957. The purpose of the PPIA is to ensure that poultry sold in the United States is, “wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged.”[4] To that end, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) places inspectors in all slaughterhouses and processing plants for continuous inspection. Their job is to check the turkeys (and all other poultry, which includes chicken, geese, guineas, ratites, and squab) both pre and post-slaughter to ensure that they’re not diseased and that steps are taken to minimize the likelihood of contamination throughout the process. This isn’t a ‘drop in every once in a while’ sort of thing – government inspectors are at the plants whenever they’re running.

27 states have their own meat and poultry inspection services. (Here’s a list[5]). By law, state standards have to be at least equal to those set down by the federal government. State inspection services are regularly reviewed, though mainly through state self-assessment reports, along with some targeted inspections and on-site reviews of selected state programs. (In 2016, FSIS did comprehensive reviews in nine of the 27 states, an on-site review in one state, and had all 27 states do self-assessments).[1]

There’s a lot to inspect, and in recent years FSIS has been asked to do more with less. While the U.S. population and its meat consumption continues to grow, the FSIS has shrunk from 9,343 employees in 2009 to 8,938 in 2016. Funding has also declined somewhat, from $1.09 billion in 2009 to $1.01 in 2016.[6]

Inspectors, whether they’re from state agencies or the FSIS, are concerned almost exclusively with food safety, not animal welfare. The only legislation that deals directly with treatment of non-organic certified animals raised for food is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires that animal areas be free of objects such as loose boards or splintered planking that may cause injury to animals, slip resistant surfaces, minimal use of electric prods and other devices that may cause animals pain, removal of sick or diseased animals from the herd, and detailed guidelines concerning acceptable methods of slaughter.[7]

While the law does require a minimal level of what some may claim to be humane treatment, conditions in feed lots and slaughterhouses can be truly atrocious. Animal-rights activist groups have repeatedly documented horrific conditions  in interviews with former slaughterhouse workers and with gut-wrenching hidden-camera footage. Animals raised to ‘USDA Organic’ certification standards are typically better off, but even their comparatively more humane environment is considered unacceptable by many animal-rights advocates.

Next time, I’ll take a look at what the various ‘humane’ animal welfare certifications mean, including USDA Organic certification.


[1] “USDA ERS – Turkey Sector: Background & Statistics,” accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/newsroom/trending-topics/turkey-sector-background-statistics/.

[2] “Turkey Business Statistics | Eatturkey.Com,” accessed November 21, 2017, http://www.eatturkey.com/why-turkey/stats.

[3] “USDA ERS – Turkey Sector: Background & Statistics.”

[4] “21 U.S. Code § 451 – Congressional Statement of Findings,” LII / Legal Information Institute, accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/21/451.

[5] The states are: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

[6] “The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer,” accessed November 20, 2017, https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RS22600.html.

[7] Government Printing Office, “CFR-2000 Title 9 Volume 2 Part 313,” accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2000-title9-vol2/pdf/CFR-2000-title9-vol2-part313.pdf.

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