As Americans finish up their Thanksgiving leftovers, there are two turkeys who skipped the oven and are heading into retirement. Following what has become a national tradition, President Obama “pardoned” two turkeys, Cobbler and his understudy Gobbler, in the Rose Garden last week.
“From here, these two lucky birds will be swept up in a whirlwind of fame and fortune that will ultimately lead them to Mount Vernon, where they will spend their twilight years in the historic home of George Washington,” said Obama at the ceremony. “And later today, Michelle, Malia, Sasha and I will be taking two turkeys who were not so lucky to a local food bank here in Washington, D.C.”
But the turkeys on the Thanksgiving table may have been the lucky ones. Mount Vernon is a beautiful place, but at a whopping 40 pounds, 19-week-old Cobbler will have a tough time staying healthy, even with the excellent veterinary care the estate provides.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average weight of turkeys headed to slaughter increased 57 percent from 1965 to 2005, from 18 to 28.2 pounds. Gobbler, known as the “vice turkey” by Mount Vernon staff, weighs 43 pounds.
“These birds are very large and are not meant to live very long, so keeping them healthy beyond the limitations of their bodies can be tricky,” said Lisa Pregent, the livestock manager for Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens. “Every day these birds are checked over by Livestock staff members to make sure they are eating, drinking, and walking normally. Their breathing is assessed at this time to check for any respiratory infections. At the first sign of illness, we consult with our veterinarian to decide the course of treatment.”
In fact, Peace, the understudy to the bird Obama granted clemency in 2011 had to be euthanized last week, just days before the two new birds were pardoned.
“We are not 100 percent sure what was wrong with him, but it looked like a neurological problem,” said Pregent. Peace was buried on the property after being humanely euthanized. Liberty, on the other hand, the top turkey from last year, is still doing “very well.”
Liberty is actually the only turkey that has lived to see the following Thanksgiving since pardoned turkeys started going to Mount Vernon in 2010.
Before Liberty and Peace there were Apple and Cider. Both birds had to be euthanized after their health failed within a few months of arriving in Virginia. They developed respiratory infections and an outside veterinarian was called to administer antibiotics. When cold weather hit they started having “foot issues,” which lab tests later determined were caused by septic joints, according to Pregent.
“I think with the weight of the birds, their joints just started to fail,” Pregent told Food Safety News last year. Apple was 45 pounds.
As Obama pardoned Cobbler and Gobbler from imminent death, many health advocates used the event to voice concern about the turkeys who don’t escape slaughter getting a different kind of free pass – making it through inspection lines despite being contaminated. Their complaint was against a new government plan that will turn most of the responsibility of poultry inspection over from government inspectors to companies.
The HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) was proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in January of this year after a 15 year trial period in 25 plants. The two pardoned turkeys would likely have been processed at one of these HIMP pilot plants, according to Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group.
Last month, Food & Water Watch joined a coalition of scientists, consumers, public interest groups and health professionals called the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards in writing a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that the agency withdraw its proposal. The Coalition echoed the concerns of other consumer advocates and former poultry workers who have previously said that HIMP, which allows for increased line speeds and prohibits government inspectors from looking inside birds, will allow for more contaminated carcasses leaving poultry plants.
“The conveyor belts in plants would be sped up, meaning the inspectors who remain would have less time to examine each turkey carcass for tumors, pus, sores, feces, and other defects— something to think about as you plan for Thanksgiving dinner,” said CSS in a press release the day before Thanksgiving.
The program would reduce the number of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors on duty and largely turn over physical inspections to company employees, while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute, over the current 140 bpm limit. FSIS says expanding HIMP would modernize an outdated inspection system, focus federal inspectors on food safety issues instead of defects, and save taxpayers around $90 million over three years — all while and preventing 5,200 foodborne illnesses annually.
The USDA also estimates that allowing an increase in line speeds would save the poultry industry $250 million annually.
The National Turkey Federation, along with the National Chicken Council, are strongly supportive of HIMP. In their comments to the agency, NTF said called the inspection scheme “the logical next step in modernization of the nation’s food safety system.”
“The proposed rule is a modern, sensible approach that will allow the food safety inspectors to focus on public health,” NTF President Joel Brandenberger said. “The proposed rule will lead to a revamped inspection system that allows the federal inspectors to shift to prevention-oriented inspection systems and redeploy its resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases.”
For more on the debate over HIMP see Controversy Continues as Comment Period Closes for HIMP
Gretchen Goetz contributed to this report. Pictured: Apple in the Rose Garden in 2010. Photo by Helena Bottemiller.© Food Safety News