Here's the Science and Tech That Went Into Your Turkey

The roast turkey at the center of Thanksgiving feasts represents many phases of advanced scientific technology.

The plump roasted turkey on many dining tables this holiday season arguably has as much tech and science behind it as your smart phone, suggest some of America's leading poultry experts.

For better and perhaps worse, turkeys in most supermarkets now are a far cry from what your relatives might have sunk their teeth into just four to five decades ago.

"In the 1960s, the average turkey weighed about 18 pounds at slaughter," Marisa Erasmus, an assistant professor at Purdue University's Department of Animal Sciences, told Seeker. "Today, a turkey at the same age weighs about 30 pounds, on average."

"In the past 50 years or so," she continued, "turkeys have almost doubled in size. The main reason for the very large birds is to produce more meat. With turkeys growing faster, they can be slaughtered earlier, making room for the next flock of turkeys to be produced."

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The big birds - most often Broad Breasted White turkeys - are too large to mate efficiently, so the majority of them raised for consumption require sophisticated artificial insemination technologies to improve the fertilization process. Penn State University associate professor of animal science Mike Hulet explained the process to Seeker while turkeys gobbled away in nearby buildings at Penn State's Poultry Education and Research Center (PERC).

"Basically semen is collected by manually manipulating the male," he said, adding that analysis of the semen and dilution, in order to standardize the amount for females, follow. A semen straw containing 100–200 million sperm cells is then manually inserted into each hen's vagina, where the cells are stored in a gland before being released later to correspond with ovulation.

Turkey hens only lay about four eggs per week, with each egg at PERC going into a high-tech incubator with systems for automatic measurement of carbon dioxide, weight loss from eggs and exact regulation of temperature, according to a Penn State release. If anything goes wrong, an alarm sounds.

"The alarm systems can detect if the machine stops, if the temperature is too high or too low, if the humidity is too high or too low, or if the machine does not turn the eggs on an hourly basis," Hulet said.

Once the young turkeys hatch, they are placed in turkey houses with lights set at higher intensity, so that the birds can map out their surroundings. The light is later dimmed, Hulet said, to calm the turkeys and reduce injury.

"Other management procedures that ensure that turkeys are raised humanely are to make sure that turkeys have enough feed and fresh, clean water, protecting them from disease by making sure that proper precautions are taken to prevent disease from getting into the barn, and promptly taking care of or removing sick turkeys," Erasmus said.

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She added, "Technologies that regulate the temperature, humidity and air quality are important in caring for turkeys, but the people who work on the farms and care for the turkeys are just as important in ensuring that turkeys are humanely raised."

Hulet agreed, saying that most producers will walk through the turkey houses at least twice a day to observe the birds, their health and welfare. He mentioned that some production systems "utilize items that entertain birds, such as items hanging from the ceiling they can peck," and add hay or straw bales into the enclosures.

The natural life span of a turkey is about 10 years, but they are generally rounded up and trucked to a slaughter plant when they are only 5 months old. A video released a few years ago by the National Turkey Federation shows what often happens next.

Studies on farm animals, such as pigs, reveal that there are differences in the ways that individual animals respond to humans, react to changes in their environment, and handle transport and the initial slaughter process.

"Animals differ in their activity levels and how fearful they are," explained Erasmus. "As a result, meat quality, and perhaps meat flavor, might differ between animals. If we have a better understanding of how individual animals react to environmental changes and to slaughter, it might be possible to breed turkeys that are less affected by changes in their environment. This will lead to improved turkey well-being and possibly changes in meat quality."

Consumers should realize that turkeys, chickens and other birds for consumption are not covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Modes of killing, as well as raising, can vary. Some of this information is conveyed on special labels such as Free Range, American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership and USDA organic, Erasmus said.

Adele Douglass, executive director of Certified Humane, told Seeker that a key welfare issue, aside from humane slaughter, is the need for increased space for the live turkeys.

"If the turkeys are too close together, they climb on top of each other and scratch each other and, as a result of that, they remove part of their toes," she said.

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Douglass and her team provided a document, Humane Farm Animal Care Standards August 2014, that outlines measures to prevent such problems.

Challenges in the process can even result once the turkeys are slaughtered, so technology comes back into play in seconds after turkeys are killed.

Erasmus explained that the dead turkeys "are washed and chilled at various points to ensure food safety. Research has led to the development of different technologies and processes to ensure turkey meat is safe to eat and to ensure optimal meat quality. For example, several researchers have tested different methods for chilling carcasses, such as using water or cold air."

Once the turkey goes to market and makes its way to a home refrigerator, still more steps are needed to ensure safety and freshness, but those are up to the consumer.

The final test is taste. Hulet says some hunters bypass nearly all of the above and prefer the taste of a wild turkey. The flavor of hunted birds is not consistent, however, since "turkey meat flavors are affected by what it is fed," he added, mentioning that the diet of wild turkeys "includes nuts, berries, insects and roughage."

Flavor is important to Douglass and her family, too.

"Since we don't allow animal byproducts in the feed, the turkeys taste like turkeys did when I was young at thanksgiving," she said. "There is a huge difference in taste. If I didn't serve a Certified Humane turkey at Thanksgiving, my kids would be very, very upset."

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