by Nicholas Nehamas
Did you get your Thanksgiving turkey yet? We hope so, or someone from Mexico or China could be chowing down on your drumstick.
Turkey, you see, has moved well beyond the pilgrim’s platter.
On a per capita basis, Israel might actually consume more turkey than the U.S.
According to market research firm Indexbox, Israelis ate 25.4 pounds of turkey annually and Americans put away 17.5 pounds of the mouthwatering fowl each year.
Because of land and climate constraints, red meat costs a lot of money in Israel. Turkey has become a popular alternative and is often served in pita bread as a shawarma.
In the U.S., we’ve known about the bird’s succulent white meat since the 17th century. The Aztecs and other native cultures also relied on Meleagris ocellata—a different breed from our North American Meleagris gallopavo—for meat and eggs. And the United Kingdom has long celebrated Christmas with a dinner of roast turkey.
But the rest of the world didn’t start catching on until the 1990s, according to Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, a DC-based lobbying group.
“In 1990, the year before I came to work here,” Brandenberger says,”the turkey industry exported 53.9 million pounds of turkey. This year the industry exported 728 million pounds, a record. What’s equally as significant about that is, in 1990, about one percent of all the turkey produced in the U.S was exported. Now it’s more like 13 percent.”
The main beneficiary of all that extra turkey is Mexico, which imported almost 400 million pounds from the U.S. in 2011.
“I was in a supermarket in Guadalajara a couple of years ago,” Brandenberger remembers, “and I went to the processed meat case and the volume of pavo products you’ll find there is incredible.” (Pavo is the Spanish word for turkey.)
China (82.8 million pounds), Hong Kong (37.9 million), Canada (22.6 million), and the Dominican Republic (15.2 million) round out the top five importers.
A Bird on the Rise
Brandenberger points to several factors in turkey’s global popularity. The U.S. government has expanded free trade by signing agreements like NAFTA and granting permanent normalized trade relations to China. Also consumers in the developing world can afford to buy more meat as their economies improve.
And Brandenberger says Americans' own pickiness has helped his industry grow.
“Americans for a lot of reasons tend to prefer white turkey meat . . . breast meat,” he explains. “But most of the rest of the world prefers dark meat. So the items that Americans are least interested in then become available for trade, and that’s helped us export aggressively.”
The industry has also had success promoting its product as a useful alternative to other meats. When China’s pork industry underwent a major crisis in 2007, Brandenberger says the USDA showed the Chinese how turkey could be used as a substitute in many of their processed meats.
Chinese annual consumption doubled to .09 pounds per person in 2008 before halving again the next year. After Israel and the U.S., the top per capita consumers of turkey are Canada (9.2), the European Union (7.9), Brazil (4.2) and Australia (3.7).