Industrial Thanksgiving: looks at the assembly line version of turkey day

November 29, 2009

Photo from

Photo from

(GH: An amazing if slightly unsettling look at the technology involved in getting Thanksgiving dinner to the majority of Americans — from

Thanksgiving is about eating, and though local, organic food might be what the cool kids are eating, most people are still eating products of the industrial food system.

Whether you’re talking turkey, cranberries or potatoes, industrial-scale processes have been developed to drive down food costs, drive up corporate profits and feed America’s incredible hunger for novel food items.

But most consumers of these manufactured meals have little or no knowledge of the machines and methods used to freeze turkeys, turn potatoes into fake potatoes, and cranberries into TV-dinner cranberry sauce. It’s not always pretty, but food scientists’ epic battle to scale up your mom’s recipes without making them taste nasty is worth examining, if not giving thanks for.

Turkey is the most iconic component of any Thanksgiving meal. Extensive breeding programs have seriously genetically altered the birds that millions of Americans eat. The birds have more than doubled in size since 1930 to an average of 28 pounds today. Even though we generally eat them whole, and therefore less processed than other meals, food technologists have developed new ways of freezing turkeys to increase their edible life, which according to the USDA is just one or two days for fresh turkeys.

A 1990 patent secured by food processor Swift-Eckrich (now Armour Swift-Eckrich) describes a method for freezing turkeys faster than traditional air-chilling. Salt, water and propolyene glycol — a major and generally nontoxic component of airplane de-icers — are cooled down to less than minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the propylene glycol and salt lower the freezing point of the water, the liquid remains unfrozen. The turkeys are either sprayed with the solution or immersed in it . . .

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About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
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