The Politics of the Thanksgiving Turkey

The turkey is an iconic american food. Benjamin Franklin even wanted to make turkey the national bird. Tomorrow, Americans will join their family and friends to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal, give thanks for the blessings in their lives, and pay homage to the first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 when the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to celebrate the harvest. One dish that will be nearly ubiquitous in all American meals will be turkey, the iconic Thanksgiving food. According to a study by the University of Illinois, 46 million pounds of turkey will be eaten on Thanksgiving. Additionally, a survey by the National Turkey Federation shows that 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving. The question is: How did this come to be? While we would like to think that Pilgrims actually ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving, our time honored tradition is mainly brought to you by the poultry industry.

It is important to give some background on when the Thanksgiving turkey tradition started.  NPR delineates the history of Thanksgiving and the turkey. George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in 1789, but Americans did not annually celebrate Thanksgiving until Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday in November, which was an unpopular decision with retailers who felt that this date would limit Christmas shopping. Demonstrating the true influence corporations have on our government, Congress moved Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November, in 1941. One political tradition that has become iconic during Thanksgiving is the Presidential pardoning of a turkey. However, as Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post writes, this tradition did not start until 1989.

While turkey might appear to represent an idyllic and free America, it represents the exact opposite when examined politically and economically. Michelle Tsai from Slate explained the economic and cultural significance of turkeys, which were originally eaten during the holidays because they were cheaper than beef and a carry over from British traditions. Today, as the Washington Post reports, just four corporations control more than half of the turkey in the United States: Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods, with the turkey industry raking in $3.57 billion in 2009. The turkey industry also employs thousands of Americans, providing roughly 20,000 to 25,000 jobs. Additionally, the industrialization of turkey production has vastly increased the amount of turkeys produced. Here’s some perspective on the turkey industry: The University of Illinois reports that in 1929, US turkey growers produced one turkey for every 29 people. Today, growers produce nearly one turkey for every American! While this is an impressive increase in efficiency, this mechanization of turkey production has had negative health and political consequences for America. NPR reports how turkeys are often injected with antibiotics fluids to make them plump and fluids that can contaminate turkeys with disease such as Salmonella and E. Coli. Since the federal government does not actively track antibiotic use and the industry is not giving out the information, there is virtually no way to know what is in our delicious Thanksgiving turkey.

Politically, the poultry industry is a powerful force in government. The National Turkey Federation, which lobbies on behalf of turkey producers, spent $140,000 in 2013 lobbying the federal government to advance policies favorable to turkey producers. According to the Congressional Research Service, the 2014 Farm Bill contains provisions specific to the poultry industry. One House provision repealed livestock marketing and competition rules proposed by the US Department of Agriculture to improve transparency in terms of information disseminated to consumers. Another House provision afforded more government insurance to poultry producers. On May 16, 2013, the National Turkey Federation issued a press release supporting the House version of the Farm Bill, which contains, “numerous important and necessary government programs and services, such as rural development and farm services, nutrition, conservation, and programs to promote turkey and other commodities across the world” (NTF, 16 May 2013). The powerful poultry industry is heavily invested in American agricultural policies, working to keep programs in place that reduce competition and increase federal dollars spent towards protecting US poultry production. While this industry is an important source of domestic jobs, the influence that the industry wields within Washington prevents the efficient use of taxpayer dollars and clouds the information the American people receive as it relates to what is truly in their iconic Thanksgiving meal.

So as you sit down next week to enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, realize that it is not by accident that you’re enjoying a turkey. The turkey is highly political, with the poultry industry using its financial and political muscle to craft favorable agricultural policy, while the general public must live with the negative consequences. While the turkey is meant to represent an America of yesteryear, in reality, it represents the corruption in the American government and  economy, that has reduced competition, manipulated legislation, and deceived the public. If the Pilgrims could see the country now, I bet turkey would be last on their Thanksgiving table.



Barclay, Eliza. “Did Your Thanksgiving Turkey Take Any Antibiotics?” National Public Radio. 27 Nov 2013.

Chite, Ralph M. “The 2014 Farm Bill (P.L. 113-79): Summary and Side-by-Side.” Congressional Research Service. 12 Feb 2014.

Hopkinson, Jenny. “A right to farm – Bill seeks to protect farmers from Obamacare – Turkey line speeds to increase under poultry rule.” Politico. 04 Aug 2014.

Leonard, Christopher. “That turkey on your plate could use some more industry competition.” Washington Post. 22 Nov 2013.

Lubin, Gus. “Everything You Need To Know About The Big Turkey Industry.” Business Insider. 24 Nov 2010.

National Turkey Federation. “Turkey Industry Echoes Support for House Agriculture Committee on Farm Bill Passage.” 16 May 2013. “Lobbying Spending Database: National Turkey Federation.”

Strauss, Valerie. “Why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving (when the Pilgrims ate deer)–and other holiday myths.” Washington Post. 29 Nov 2009.

Tsai, Michelle. “Wherefore Turkey?: How poultry made its way onto the holiday menu.” Slate. 25 Nov 2009.

University of Illinois Extension. “Turkey Facts for Holidays.”

USDA. “USDA Announces Proposed Rule to Increase Fairness in the Marketing of Livestock and Poultry.”!ut/p/c4/04_sb8k8xllm9msszpy8xbz9cp0os_gac9-wmj8qy0mdpxbda09nxw9dfxcxq-caa_2cbedfaeuojoe!/?contentidonly=true&contentid=2010/06/0326.xml. 18 Jun 2010.

Wollner, Adam. “Thanksgiving: A Very Brief Political History.” National Public Radio. 13 Nov 2013.

Andrew Postal

Andrew is a former CCT Graduate Student.