Posted on November 18, 2015
The Thanksgiving season is upon us and, horrifically, upon turkeys. We will see their carcasses everywhere — sliced and served on the lunch plate, or dressed and stuffed on the dinner table. They will be talked about at the water-cooler and laughed about on late-night TV. There will even be turkey-flavored potato chips and turkey-infused vodka.
What must be the scale of an annual ritual concerning one species of birds that they will so invade our lives for a week or two? Exactly how many turkeys do we Americans kill for Thanksgiving?
The National Turkey Federation did estimate an answer to this question and came up with 46 million, but provided no methodology or reasoning behind their estimate. This blog post fills the gap, but arrives at a more conservative number of 37 million as likely closer to the correct answer.
From the monthly USDA reports on poultry slaughter, we know that we kill over 235 million turkeys each year — in 2014, we killed 236.6 million of them. But, it is not entirely straightforward to estimate the number of them we kill for our consumption during the Thanksgiving season because turkeys are killed year-round at approximately the same rate. It makes business sense to do so — killing at a steady rate, without sudden spikes during the holiday season, uses the machinery, labor and other infrastructure more efficiently.
Since we eat more turkeys around Thanksgiving despite not killing them at a higher rate during the season, most of the turkeys we eat at Thanksgiving are ones who are killed months earlier and kept frozen. The USDA keeps track of the stocks of meat kept frozen in public and private warehouses before they are moved for retail to grocery stores, restaurants and food service companies. Based on the USDA reports on cold storage, the following bar graph shows the weight of whole turkey carcasses as well as parts of turkeys, such as breasts and legs, kept frozen in warehouses in the US on the last day of each month, from January 2013 to September 2015 (the most recent month for which data is available).
at the end of each month (in millions of pounds)
from January 2013 to September 2015
It is easy to notice the cyclic nature of the bar graph above — during the months of October and November, there are sharp drops in the amount stored in warehouses, especially of whole turkey carcasses. These drops represent the movement of frozen turkeys from warehouses to grocery stores and other food establishments for sale or consumption. Timed for peak consumption in late November, this process begins in mid-October and lasts through mid-to-late November.
During any given month, the total weight of turkeys retailed (i.e., moved from cold storage for retail) or consumed can be estimated as the weight of turkeys killed during that month plus the weight of turkeys in cold storage on the last day of the previous month minus the weight of turkeys in cold storage on the last day of that current month. For example, the total weight of turkeys consumed/retailed during April is the weight of turkeys killed during April plus the weight of turkeys in cold storage on March 31 minus the weight of turkeys in cold storage on April 30.
The only little snag left is that the turkey slaughter data is reported in live weight while the cold storage data is reported in carcass weight or the actual weight of what is stored in the warehouse. The live weight of an animal is the weight of an animal when he/she is alive. The carcass weight or the dressed weight of a turkey is usually the weight of the carcass excluding head, feet and certain internal organs but including bones, skin, fat, liver, gizzard, and neck. The ratio of the carcass weight to live weight of a turkey varies between 77.74% to 80.03% depending on age, gender and strain of the turkey. Since USDA reports on turkey slaughter and storage are not consistently separated by age, gender or strain, I will use the midpoint of this range, 78.885%, as the conversion factor from live weight to carcass weight.
The following graph displays the estimated carcass weight of the turkeys slaughtered during each month, between January 2013 and September 2015, and the estimated carcass weight of the turkeys consumed/retailed during each of those months.
(in millions of pounds of estimated carcass weight)
in each month between January 2013 and September 2015
In the graph above, the additional weight of the turkeys consumed/retailed during October and November beyond what is typically consumed/retailed during the other ten months can be estimated as the carcass weight of the turkeys killed for Thanksgiving. During the last 24 months for which data is available (from October 2013 to September 2015), the average carcass weight of turkeys consumed/retailed per month between the months of December through September was 431.96 million pounds. This represents a baseline rate of consumption of turkeys if we did not have the Thanksgiving season. This consumption is usually in the form of turkey slices in sandwiches, turkey burgers, turkey sausages and ground turkey, directly purchased by consumers or served at lunch delis and workplace cafeterias. For obvious economic reasons, these turkey products are made from the larger turkeys – ones with a carcass weight larger than the average of about 24 pounds.
- National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. Poultry Slaughter. 2013-2015. (link, accessed November 18, 2015)
- National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. Cold Storage. 2013-2015. (link, accessed November 18, 2015)
- National Turkey Federation. Turkey History and Trivia. Undated. (link, accessed November 18, 2015)
- R. M. Hulet, Department of Poultry Science, Pennsylvania State University. Comparative Meat Yield of Modern Commercial Turkeys. World Poultry magazine, 2004. (link, accessed November 18, 2015)
The months of October and November, however, are different with a significantly higher rate at which turkeys, mostly smaller and whole turkeys, move out of warehouses and into supermarkets, food service stations and restaurant menus. Since Thanksgiving appears in late November, it is a reasonable assumption that almost all of this inventory of turkeys — a total average of 1,310.9 million pounds during these two months — is intended for sale or consumption during the Thanksgiving season.
Now, the season itself is not just limited to the Thanksgiving week — as early as mid-November, food service cafeterias set up turkey carving stations on some days, restaurants add turkeys on their menus and workplace parties feature whole roast turkeys. I would conservatively estimate that turkey consumption during at least one-third of the month of November, or 10 days of November, is Thanksgiving-inspired consumption with little or no baseline consumption of the more processed turkey products like deli slices. So, the baseline consumption (not inspired by Thanksgiving) during October and November can be estimated at 431.96 million pounds during October plus two-thirds of 431.96 million pounds during November, a total of 719.94 million pounds. The additional weight of turkeys consumed/retailed for the Thanksgiving season per year, therefore, is 1,310.9 – 719.94 ≈ 590.96 million pounds.
Based on a survey reported by the National Turkey Foundation, the average weight of turkeys purchased at Thanksgiving is 16 pounds — much smaller than the overall average carcass weight (24 pounds) of turkeys raised in the United States. The 590.96 million pounds of turkeys consumed/retailed for the Thanksgiving season, therefore, represents 590.96 / 16 ≈ 36.9 million turkeys.
It is a human weakness that we can be overwhelmed by the scale of the massacre these numbers represent, but lose sight of the suffering endured by each hen or tom who lies dead on our Thanksgiving table. From the time they were babies in hatcheries to the time they were killed, the turkeys we eat would have endured a horrific litany of abuses.
Our expression of gratitude for the joys in our lives need not come coupled with the theft of every mundane and every significant joy from the life of another individual. It is easy to leave turkeys alone and they would be thankful for it. After all, if the giving of thanks is worthy of celebration, so should be the earning of thanks from another.