SOON, Americans will be gathering around the holiday table in the spirit of giving thanks. Similar to the first bountiful harvest celebrated in 1621, the legacy of thanks is centered on the food served at the table.
Although the number of turkeys raised this year is down 2%, there will still be an abundance of the leading animal protein Americans serve for the Thanksgiving meal.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecasted that the nation's 9,677 turkey farms will raise 235 million turkeys in 2014.
Furthermore, Minnesota, the leading state for turkey production, will raise an estimated 45 million turkeys, which, surprisingly, is the same figure USDA has penciled for the number of turkeys cooked and eaten on Thanksgiving Day.
Typically, turkeys in the U.S. are grown in scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barns, allowing the birds to move around freely. The barns protect the birds from predators, disease and the weather, the National Turkey Federation explained.
Improvements in genetics, management practices and processing have contributed to turkey operators' ability to produce a pound of meat using less feed and in a shorter amount of time. As a result, these technological advancements have shrunk the environmental footprint of the turkey industry.
Healthy, well-treated birds are processed into a low-fat, high-protein source of nourishment. All U.S. turkeys are fed a balanced, complete diet of pelleted grains, along with essential minerals and nutrients, and they are raised without hormones or steroids. In fact, no hormones or steroids have been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use in poultry.
For more than a half-century, FDA has approved the use of antibiotics for raising turkeys. However, antibiotics are just one tool some turkey growers utilize to ensure the health of the flock. Importantly, antibiotic use in growing turkeys is overseen by veterinarians and turkey producers following strict guidelines, including a mandatory withdrawal period.
Over the past three decades, the turkey industry has actually transitioned from being more of a holiday-orientated business to creating a diversified product line for consumers to enjoy year-round.
Recent statistics show that 31% of all turkey consumed in the U.S. annually is eaten during the holiday season; this compares to 50% in 1970.
Since 1970, turkey consumption overall has climbed 100%, with Americans consuming 16 lb. per person last year, the National Turkey Federation reported.
Turkey is a lean source of protein with plenty of nutrient advantages. One 3 oz. serving of boneless, skinless turkey breast contains 26 g of protein, 1 g of fat and 0 g of saturated fat. In addition, a 3 oz. serving of boneless, skinless turkey breast has 8% more protein than 3 oz. of boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Regarding white meat versus dark meat, 3 oz. of turkey breast has 20 fewer calories and 3 g more protein than a similar-sized portion of turkey thighs — a dark meat — but the thighs have more iron, zinc and selenium and a higher mineral count, according to the Minnesota Turkey Research & Promotion Council.
U.S. consumers purchasing food for the holiday this year will find higher prices at the grocery store overall.
Furthermore, wholesale prices of turkeys are expected to increase 8-10%, according to Purdue University economist Corrine Alexander.
USDA is predicting that wholesale prices for eastern market whole turkeys will be between $1.12 and $1.16/lb. in the fourth quarter of this year, compared with $1.05/lb. at this time last year.
The price U.S. consumers will pay for the remainder of 2014 will be heavily dependent on individual retailers' pricing decisions.
"The actual price you pay will vary depending on whether you purchase whole or turkey parts, frozen or fresh birds, fresh, precooked or complete turkey meals, brand names and the value of store coupons and price specials," Alexander explained.
She added that turkey prices typically seasonally drop from August to December as supplies increase. Expensive feed in 2012 pressured turkey growers to reduce flock sizes in order to limit their financial losses.
With grain farmers harvesting record crops, however, feed costs have returned to more reasonable levels, which should trigger expansion for the turkey industry next year.
The good news for grocery shoppers is that a great harvest for cranberries, sweet potatoes and white potatoes will keep prices of those accompaniments stable this year.
On the other hand, green bean production was impaired by too much rain in key growing areas, and this year's crop is expected to be 50% smaller, which will spike prices for fresh green beans now and negatively affect future supplies and prices of canned green beans, Alexander noted.
A trend in America's kitchens is for cooks to get more creative. Nonetheless, a survey conducted by YouGov and commissioned by McCormick & Co. revealed that U.S. cooks will not try to alter the preparation of the traditional turkey but instead will invent new flavors for side dishes and desserts.
Whereas the majority of Americans still want the turkey to taste the same, the survey revealed that 40% want to change up their sides, and 38% want to do the same with desserts.
Interestingly, two-thirds of adults currently pitch in to help with the Thanksgiving meal, which results in a melting pot of flavors and dishes.
"Sides and desserts are often made by different people — whether it's a neighbor, a cousin or a friend — and they tend to add their personality to the dish," said chef Kevan Vetter of McCormick Kitchens.
According to the survey, Midwesterners will be the most likely to add entirely new dishes, while cooks in the West and South will celebrate with a mixture of flavors representative of the different backgrounds of their family and friends.
* According to the 2012 "Census of Agriculture," 9,677 farms reported turkey sales, an increase of 1,393 farms since 2007.
* It takes 14 weeks for a hen turkey (female) to reach the target processing weight of 17.5 lb. that is typical for marketing whole birds. On the other hand, it takes 18 weeks for a tom turkey (male) to reach the target market weight of 38 lb. Toms are normally processed into products such as cutlets, tenderloins, turkey sausage, franks and deli meats.
* On average, it takes 75-80 lb. of feed to raise a 30 lb. tom turkey.
* Feed costs account for approximately two-thirds of the total cost to raise a turkey.
* Turkeys are actually raised in environmentally controlled barns to protect them from predators, weather and disease.
* Consumers should schedule thawing for the turkey to reach 38 degrees F no more than four to six hours before cooking.
* A whole, unstuffed turkey weighing 8-12 lb. will take 2.5-3.5 hours to cook in the oven — longer if it's stuffed. A free turkey cooking and preparation guide is available at http://iowaturkey.org.
* Turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F for a whole bird and breast meat and 180 degrees F for thighs.
* Recent studies have shown that eating turkey does not necessarily make people tired. Instead, feeling sleepy after a large holiday meal is likely due to the large carbohydrate-rich meal consumed.
Sources: National Turkey Federation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Turkey Growers Assn. and Iowa Turkey Federation.