The price of turkey this Thanksgiving is lower than usual because we slaughtered 244 million this year

The fate of an American turkey.
The fate of an American turkey.
Image: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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Yesterday, (Nov. 21) Donald Trump took part in the White House’s annual turkey-pardoning tradition, ceremoniously sparing two handsome, broad-breasted whites from the Thanksgiving knife.

The presidential pardoning followed several days during which the two birds—named Wishbone and Drumstick—were paraded around the US capital. That included spending some time at the Willard Intercontinental hotel, a block from the White House.

While Wishbone and Drumstick were able to avoid an unseemly death, millions of other turkeys weren’t so lucky. We don’t yet have the numbers for 2017, but in 2016 alone, the American turkey industry produced 244 million birds, accounting for 7.4 billion pounds of meat, according to US Department of Agriculture data. A lot of that winds up as processed deli meat and sausage. It also includes the birds that end up as the centerpieces of Thanksgiving spreads.

The cost of a wholesale turkey is at its lowest since 2013, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That’s because the US has a large inventory of birds in cold storage, nearly double the amount this same time last year. That means a 16-pound bird is costing, on average across the US, about $22.38.

Since the 1930s, turkey production in the US has increased by more than 1,200%, thanks largely to the breeding of commercially-available turkeys in the 1950s and the advent of artificial insemination in the 1960s.

There was a decrease in turkey production starting in the 1990s, and since the mid-2000s, it’s been more or less stable. Despite the drop in overall numbers of birds, the industry has been making more and more money. In 2016, for example, the turkey industry pulled in just over $6 billion, compared to around $3 million throughout the 1990s ($3 million in 1995, adjusted for inflation, would be about $4.9 million today).

The overall numbers are startling; in 2016, the US farmers raised enough turkeys to supply all 125 million American households with about two birds apiece. Every year, Americans eat about 16 pounds of turkey per capita, the USDA reports. That’s more than enough to satiate the US appetite for the bird and still have just under 3 billion pounds left over to export.