If we all map our relation to the world by the tokens of food that we assemble on our dinner plates, at least three times a day, the orchestration of a full harvest plate–sweet potatoes from the earth; turkeys fed over a year from grain; celeriac or brussels sprouts for something somewhat green–seem a statement of global harmony, a sign that all is right in the old agrarian world we have long left. If the Thanksgiving plate is a reminder of the harmony of the food cycle and a soothing celebration of something with its own complex feng shui, which spreads out to all assembled invited or just seated guests, a gastronomic reminder of domestic harmony, each plate on the table in a sort of counterpoint with one another that is re-assembled in distinctive fashion on one’s own meal plate, the harmony of that microcosm was disturbed by seasonal warnings of dangers of infections that this time arrived with increased urgency during the Great Turkey Recall of 2018.
Multi-state warnings about Salmonella are regularly issued by the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, provided in a state-by-state parsing of outbreak strains to alert the public for consumption warnings, and usually reveal a sense of limited clustering to suggest the possible vectors of locally specific foods, even if only two to three persons are taken ill–
–and if the spread of infections from turkey meat from November 2017 had been tracked across twenty-six states given the dangers of handling or consuming poultry such as turkey–
–the warnings gave alarming immediacy on the eve of Thanksgiving, when turkeys would be arriving in refrigerators nationwide, on their way to ovens, kitchen counters, sinks, and eventually reach their destination on household tables, as it had spread to thirty-five states–as if to suggest something like a huge electoral victory in a nation obsessed recently by the division of the union into red and blue states, as the constellation of states which saw over seven infections–New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and California–provided testimony to the threat of actual infection of the nation, spreading out from a density of turkey processing plants often located at a distance from factor farms where most turkeys are raised, and the national feedback loops that let processing plants calibrate the amount of desired whole turkey for which their is an appetite and demand each Thanksgiving Day. In this context, the CDC is right to exercise a degree of vigilance over reported cases of Salmonella infections and their strains, and WaPo was right to publicize just how many states have been struck by multiple reported cases of contaminated bacteria-bearing turkey meat, even if the mapping of a “spread of infection” is hardly able to be deciphered even by the best epidemiologist’s sleuthing.
Mapped across multiple states, and derived from antibiotic resistant strains of the foodborne virus, the product recall of ground turkey was so disturbing to receive in mid-November offered a reminder of dangerous disequilibria in our food production and distribution complex among some of the largest distributors of factory farmed turkey meat on which the nation has come to rely for creating the appearance of culinary harmony.
The arrival of fifty million trussed birds on our Thanksgiving tables suggest a massive national process by which birds are raised, slaughtered, refrigerated, and shipped to distributors across the nation, ready to provide a forced sense of family gemütlichkeit and bonhomie as groups assemble around the table. The familiarity with the breeding, processing, and provision of birds from a limited genetic stock is the central focus of an annual production cycle that produces batches of designated fresh and frozen poultry that arrives in time for the holiday season. Although we carefully compartmentalize away from the recipes or preparation of the annual feast, a division between the live animal and its carcass,, but also between the raw and the cooked, the method of cooking is a source of increased anxieties, particularly in relation to food-born illnesses that are being distributed through packaged meats. With one person dead from Salmonella poisoning in turkeys, and one hundred and sixty four taken sick, the possibility of a bacterial infection being “widespread in the turkey industry” created fears of a broad outbreak–reprising the terrifying antibiotic-resistant outbreak of Salmonella of 2011 in both turkey and beef, which were also focussed on Salmonella Hadar in Jenny-O turkeys–itself a subsidiary of Hormel–and Salmonella Heidelberg in Cargill Meats.
Indeed, the image of Thanksgiving celebrating fruits of the harvest is upended in the current industrial scale production of turkey in our nation: the industry around Thanksgiving orients the hatching and raising in large indoor cages of millions of birds for November arrival in supermarkets and shops stands at such remove from the seasonal harvest and old agrarian calendar to make us realize the tensions between the current landscape of factory farms with the image of the provision of wealth focussed on the bird arriving well-cooked at one’s holiday table–as the specter of birds infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria at some or several points in the process of farming or producing birds designed for our dining room tables. If the production of turkeys in America–densely concentrated in parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Omaha and Texas, in more extreme geographic concentration than other varieties of poultry–
Although the agrarian region has been cast as bucolic, authentic, and removed from those large cities and sites of urban pollution and grit, the density of the clusterings of mega-farms in fact stands as something like the crooked spine of a nation. The density of these farms suggests the degree to which turkey farmers are increasingly bent by the market tyrants from Butterball, Hormel, Cargill, who determine the interface between the national demand for turkeys and the condition and welfare of their supply. The calculus of Turkey production pivots, unsurprisingly, on Thanksgiving, where the demand for the birds seasonally peaks.
The concentration of poultry production reflects its reliance on the production of readily available grain, and especially soybeans, that constitute the bulk of turkey feed. With three of the folks who were taken ill with Salmonella working or tied to someone who worked in facilities that either farm or process birds for eating, or raising turkey meat–raising questions about the exposure of those who work on farms to antibiotic-resistant bacteria–or from raw turkey that was intended as pet food. The rise of infections by bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, from ampicillin to tetracyclines to streptomycin, perhaps tied to the prophylactic administration of antibiotics within industrial-scale factory farms. (Despite the proposal to introduce an outright ban on using tetracycline at sub therapeutic levels, the failure to adopt such restrictions has created the situation where three quarters of all antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock: back in the late 1980s, the rates of administering antibiotics to humans and animals had been roughly equal.
The mis-use of antibiotics to increase the size of raised birds–a danger to which turkeys are particularly vulnerable, as they are prized and valued for their size and the rapidity of growing birds to a large size–even if the FDA discourages using antibiotics to promote growth, the absence of any regulatory enforcement as to what amounts constitute proper prevention has opened a large loophole in American farming: Norbest, Jennie-O, Cargill and Foster Farms prohibit using antibiotics for promoting growth, but not for disease prevention, creating a broad opening top the use of antibiotics, as Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) found in 2015, when it survived the feed additives that major United States producers of turkeys–including Cartill, Tyson, Jennie-O, and Perdue–and the beta agonist Ractopamine, which has been banned in the European Union, but remains legal in the United States.
The production of turkeys in this agrarian-industrial complex runs like clockwork. Fertilized turkey eggs are incubated for a month before hatching, resting to grow for three to four months in farms, and are shipped to a slaughterhouse or processing plants for predation for markets in time for Thanksgiving celebrations, as if inexorably attracted by the annual calendar of consumption generates a production schedule that is something of a dialectic, exerting undue pressures of production on factory farms to produce turkeys of increased size (who wants small birds? few did until recently) who are best produced through extra antibiotics, in a sort of “dosing” of the sacrificial bird before its ritual sacrifice. Rather than sacrificed for the harvest in a natural way, farms have perfected a strategy to produce sufficient birds of needed size that constitutes a production schedule mirroring the harvest, but introducing a few mechanical tweaks hinging upon transport, distribution, and demand: of the turkeys hatched each spring, slaughtered birds are refrigerated to temperatures below 40 degrees Farenheit, but above 26 degrees, in time to arrive in something like the fresh frozen state by late October or early November for the preparation of the Thanksgiving table.
The prominence of Thanksgiving in the lives of the farmed turkeys as the fulcrum along which raising birds turns is not oriented to the farm, or the seasons, in other words, but the elastic market that determines how fifty million birds can be supplied to those wanting to repeat the national ritual of Thanksgiving feasts. If technology was recognized as the subject of the contemporary historical tragedy in the technicians of production, the mechanics and techniques of turkey raising may post part of the problem. For the production schedule offers multiple opportunities for bacterial infection that must make them particularly sensitive to carrying food-borne disease. The slaughtered fowl shipped out to retailers respond to the levels of demand marketers find, allowing them to shift some carcasses designated for lunch meats, individual breasts and legs sold in packages, or ground turkey back into the processing of whole birds, suggesting the actual fluidity between ground turkey meat and the birds arriving at Thanksgiving table.
The extent of these fears were readily tapped by recent maps of the feared outbreaks of Salmonella infections from tainted supplies of turkey, transmitted in undercooked meats, that seems poised to threaten to frustrate the harmony of the social potlatch of harvest foods, as warnings of the danger of infectious disease have spread, with Thanksgiving only weeks away, across thirty-five states–in a reprisal of fears the previous year of the first reports of cases of a bacterial strain distinguished by its resistantancn to antibiotics. The discovery and identification of the strain of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Reading prompted fears for a Thanksgiving outbreak of infections, which rather than mapped with the level of detail that would reflect the detection of the outbreak in sampled raw turkey products from some twenty-two individual slaughterhouses and seven meat-processing plants, were described only in a state-by-state distribution of total reported infections rather than the actual vectors of infectious disease: the Washington Post designed the below infographic to alert its readers to the worries of a spread of tainted turkey meat, coloring states with the greater number of reported infections as if in more underdone shades of meat, but their removal form any sense of the sits of distributors or slaughterhouses concealed rather than clarified.
The color ramp on this infographic derived from public records released by the CDC. If its immediate message was to remind viewers of the dangers of serving underdone turkey meat, the deep understory may have been a lack of full transparency how the government agency hid the identities of the turkey suppliers identified and suspected of slaughtering, distributing, and selling the compromised meat. The watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has noted in the past the danger of agencies protecting the suppliers with considerable vested interests in keeping the turkey-industrial complex that carries millions of birds to American holiday tables on time for this national feast. The fears of such a relinquishing of responsibilities of good government is perhaps not surprising in the current pro-business atmosphere of Trump’s Washington, with Georgia chicken family magnate Sonny Perdue the nation’s thirty-first secretary of the USDA; Purdue somewhat generically retweeted the public cautionary food safety warning to handling bird carcasses,but without mention of the outbreak–inspiring the quick response that the “best” defense was in fact to “only eat veg” over the holiday feast.
And if “talking turkey”as an expression of speaking frankly has been argued to have originated in the open spirit of the holiday–if also possible in “talking cold turkey” as a way of discussing actual facts may have arisen within the context of the holiday–less about contact with native Americans than the recreation of bonhomie and openness at the holiday table–the alternatives of pleasant conversation and frank discussion both stand at odds with the current concealment of an actually accurate map of food safety. For the distribution of toxic turkeys and their origin in the supply chain or in factory farms seems concealed for know of left unclear in maps that register the arrival –evident in recent identification of sources of tainted meat suppliers as Tolleson, the source of many of the contaminated turkeys, to beef products sold and distributed by sources tentatively identified for the public as including Kroger, Laura’s Lean and JBS Tolleson generic. The uncertain landscape of bacteria in fresh, processed, and frozen meat raises fears of food-born diseases as something like a self-made dirty bomb.
From the perspective of the USDA,”food safety” is described less in terms of the conditions in which birds are raised for sale, than to the kitchen practices of preparing and cooking the bird, a familiar ritual of cleaning and defrosting the meat, as a set of four”best practices” of delivering the safest bird to the holiday table–
–rather than addressing the questions of how such a strain was introduced, or the steps that should be taken in bagging, buying, and storing potentially infected turkey or chicken carcasses, as if to shift the onus to the consumer and the preparer of the holiday meal, rather than the question of how the breakout diseases correlated to the increasing dependence of turkey distribution on factory farms and large meat-processing plants.
Tracing down the origins of the bacterial presence of different Salmonella strains seems to have been far from the minds of the officials who issued assurances confined to food preparation, in hopes to assuage public fears, and dampen suspicions that infections were endemic to the turkey-industrial complex. USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue–scion of a firm of Turkey suppliers–and not exactly a disinterested source, but more of a representative of the industrial farming of poultry meat that presents itself as “fit & easy’ and “fresh”–and “changing the way we treat chickens” and with a commmitment to animal care–
Perude may have been profesionally distracted on social media, to be sure, between attention to tampering down alarms of the damage caused by Hurricane Michael across the Florida panhandle and the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire in California, which unleashed alarms about forestry, agriculture, and water infrastructure. But the deceptive moves to pin the epidemic of wildfires on inadequate or lacking “forest management”–rather than climate change seem to be mirrored in his direction of public attention to the cultivation of best practices of poultry preparation to the exclusion of any acknowledgement of the widespread discovery of antibiotic-resistant bacteria within the very sorts of turkey meat that his family business has long prepared. Even if he tweeted on November 22 to followers to enjoin them to be conscious that “if you are preparing a meal, please remember we have American farmers to thank for the bounty,” erasing the industrial-scale structures of poultry farming –even as Perdue presided over the deregulation of the poultry industry, undoing powers that earlier administrations gave to small farmers who raise antibiotic-free fowl or work on contract for meat industry players–Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill, and Farbest Foods–to bring charges against them for abusive distributive practices, introduced under the Obama administration to provide better guarantees to control meat production, in hopes to “control frivolous litigation,” that would and prevent agribusiness meat processing companies from setting terms to family farms–continuing the USDA’s existing regulations for meat packers and stockyards would only serve, poultry lobbyists argue, to “open the floodgates to frivolous and costly litigation,” but leaves distributors and agribusiness to dictate the terms of turkey sales, production, and livestock conditions.
But the alarms about the quality of the birds raised by our nation’s largest suppliers of turkeys should not be lost in the instability of the spread of fires in high-population areas and increased damages from natural disasters. Perhaps the only acknowledgement of the fears of contaminated poultry bearing antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present in the public promise that Purdue would share oversight of culturing food livestock and poultry cell-lines with the FDA, prospectively producing a new regime of food safety for the future. The infographic from WaPo couldn’t not respond, in the meantime, to growing suspicions that the birds that would soon lie on our tables derived from tainted meat, and that the holiday stood to increase our vulnerability across the nation to uncomfortable intestinal disquiet. However, it makes sense to ask whether the deregulation of farm conditions and livestock conditions would not act–as President Barack Obama predicted of Citizens United decision allowing the deregulation of funding of political campaigns stood to “open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections,” by removing any restrictions for livestock raising.
It remained striking that among Perdue’s extensive visits to family farms, @SecretarySonny was notably silent about the concerns for the spread of infected meat within the Turkey-industrial complex of United States farms and poultry distributors. Perdue preferred to tweet out openly promotional images of Secretary Sonny visiting favorite small-scale suppliers of Thanksgiving birds to his followers, a farm producing but 30,000 birds a year–unlike the factory farms from which most of the fifty million birds arrive at American Thanksgiving tables–within other promotional images of the Secretary visiting family farms that seem to be carefully curated to suggest his ties to the family farm, and to a bucolic image of where our healthiest turkeys are bred–overlooking the dominance of four firms– Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill, and Farbest Foods–in the distribution and slaughtering of turkeys, and the dominance that larger firms will continue to have over family farms, driven by the demand to produce larger birds more quickly to fill a growing market for turkey meat.
USDA @SecretarySonny’s tweet about his November 12, 2018 visit to Lee Farms in East Windsor NJ
If Perdue’s tours of family farms and promotion of American farmers on twitter suggests an agrarian paradise dedicated to prosperous family-based animal husbandry, the active social media feed provokes a picture of wholesome husbandry far from the range that occupies such a prominent place in the American imaginary that is regularly reactivated every Thanksgiving, sharply dissonant with the American farmscape, or the distribution networks that dominate how farmed turkey meat arrives at our tables, as the Secretary of Agriculture does his part in sustaining the illusion of a rich agrarian landscape blended harmoniously with a farmscape where the bounty of the land still exist in a “great outdoors” rather than in a market for processed meat–promoting the idea that Minnosota, the capital of farmed-raised turkeys, raises those turkeys outdoors, rather than in large, indoor hangars.
–or in the pre-packaged sales of farm-raised turkey meat.
The current distribution of infections from antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in turkey meat run against the bucolic vision of the harvest holiday, and suggest the danger of dependence on a constellation of factory farms and large farms serving distributors of cut, ground, and whole birds. The discovery of vectors of infectious disease haven’t been traced within the food supply cycle with any fine grace, but suggest the national level of disquietude and unease at the possibility of a breakout virus in the birds soon to arrive at our tables.
The data viz seems designed to trigger unease at breaches between the categories of holiday tables and the factory farms that are so often sequestered in discrete categories, and indeed upset the vision of a smooth circulation of turkeys from farm to table. By breaching the domestic and the large-scale distribution of meat in the nation, categories usually kept neatly separate, fears of communicating bacterial infections through undercooked turkey meat seemed materialized in the data visualization authoritatively provided by the CDC, whose newly tweaked palette revealed the dangers of the divide. For despite the clustering of an immense amount of wealth in poultry products in areas where canola grains, a staple in bred turkey diets, are cheap, able to convert low-cost grains to valued poultry products–often removed from their most common sites of slaughter for the bulk of the American market.
The divide between the clustering of distribution centers for American poultry markets seemed removed from the ones which arrived in our refrigerators to be basted in ovens, in annual idylls of domesticity. The creation of a USGS Breeding Bird Survey suggests the increased density of such “turkey capitals” that are in three cases named “Turkey,” as if they are the modern remnants of old factory towns, where talking turkey presumably means serious business and a way of life.
The concentration of that the wealth of poultry overlaps with the current states where bred turkeys remain concentrated in quite disproportionate ways, let alone disturbingly unclean living conditions, and where they lay in waiting en route to slaughterhouses before arriving at distribution networks, including two Wisconsin towns that announce themselves as the “turkey capital” of their state; the belt of turkey heads across the middle of the nation–or from Minnesota to Iowa to Missouri to Arkansas–
The dramatic geographical concentration of inventories of turkey farms in the United States six years ago already raised questions about the health consequences of such intense overcrowding of poultry farms–even if we don’t seem to measure the concentration of farmed turkey that have grown increasingly concentrated, placing literally millions and millions of farm-bred birds, many raised for the Thanksgiving table, in dense concentrations at factory farms with little sense of the growing worries of public health that such concentrations might cause or provoke, as the demand for the bird long limited to holiday feasting has grown as a “healthy” option and an alternative choice for fresh pet food.
While that may not seem to have much to do with the turkeys that arrive, fully cooked, at our tables–
And even if we forwent eating turkey this Thanksgiving for reasons of taste and expedience, as well as a smaller table, the topical findings of an antibiotic resistant Salmonella strain set off broad alarms about food preparation.
For the detection of multi-drug resistant Salmonella strains in a “multi-state outbreak” tied to raw turkey raises specters of a national infection, and raises some very current questions about the anthropology of meat. As if Salmonella were threatening the nation by crossing the borders of our Thanksgiving tables, rather than born in the fabric of our factory, the tallying of cases of poisoning and hospitalization couldn’t help but be read as cautionary of a public health disaster, warning us to fully cook our traditional Thanksgiving meats to contain the danger of contracting diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, through severe and possibly fatal foodborne bacterial infections. The map’s color ramp adopts a normal Color Brewer ramp, using it to render the range of reported cases of Salmonella infections by a shade of increased undercooking of turkey meat, in a barely subliminal message–
–designed to recall the shades of uncooked meat that offer the clearest subliminal message of the vectors of infection, all of a sudden giving it an immediate narrative of local poisoning–even if the “map” is far from geographically or epidemiologically specific in its state-by-state breakdown of the “breakout” of the disease–and seems a teaser to imagine the potential future epidemic of the consumption of a spate of undercooked holiday turkey.
We’ll be cooking far fewer than the two hundred and fifty million turkeys raised in a year. And if free-range birds are popular, increasing numbers of turkeys are also clustered in smaller spaces and in far fewer states in overcrowded factory farms makes the infographic showing recent cases of Salmonella tied to the consumption of turkey meat disconcerting on the eve of Thanksgiving, and almost a reflection on the state of the nation’s food safety.
The color spectrum of underdone meat triggers perennial fears haunting America’s day of thanks, alerts all viewers to the dangers of under-cooking the bird or failing to wash hands, under the surface lies the conditions in which living turkeys are kept while raised for a holiday repast, among ammonia-laced air, in crowded conditions, and with poultry litter rarely kept clean or pristine. Even if the outbreak was in turkey products, such perennial concerns about the transmission of bacteria in the cleaning, stuffing and cooking of the holiday bird are all condensed in that infographic, and its ramp to correspond rather creepily to the guidelines for preparing turkey flesh as the vector for future outbreaks after Thanksgiving meals, even if the large bulk of reported cases seem to have derived from ground turkey meat.Continue reading