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Why are turkeys bigger? It’s genetics, not hormones

Turkey

You don't need to spend more for a healthy, nutritious Thanksgiving turkey — unless you want to.

When shopping for a holiday bird, expect to see several claims on the packaging trying to convince you to choose a certain brand of turkey over another, even if it costs a few dollars more. You may find that the turkeys in the fancy packaging are labeled, “Raised without hormones."

But just because the generic-brand turkeys are label free doesn’t mean that the birds are pumped up with hormones or are less healthy or nutritious, says Dr. James Dickson, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University.

In fact, all turkeys and poultry are raised without hormones, as required by federal law, Dickson says. It’s been illegal to use hormones in poultry production since the mid-1950s.

“It’s absolutely illegal in the United States to give hormones to poultry. Period. You can’t feed them, you can’t inject them or put them in water,” Dickson says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows turkey companies to put a “raised without hormones” label on the packaging. However, the label must be accompanied by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

Yet internet rumors still swirl claiming that the hormones in meat and poultry lead to early puberty in girls. Yet the science has proven that it’s “simply untrue,” Dickson says.

All foods, including fruits, vegetables and meats, naturally contain hormones. However, most hormones are species-specific and are only recognized in the body of that species. So, for example, a beef hormone likely won’t have an impact on humans, Dickson says.

“It’s a legitimate concern. I have three daughters. I understand where people are coming from. It’s your family. It’s your own children. So of course, you are going to worry. But it’s not a human health (issue),” Dickson says.

So why do turkeys today have more breast meat than in years past?

Advances in genetics and nutrition have allowed turkey farmers to select birds that naturally have more breast meat to satisfy growing consumer demand for deli turkey sandwiches, Dickson says.

“(All farmers) try to do better than they did 10 years ago,” Dickson says. “The example I give in class is look at computers 10 years ago. Would you still use them today? So it’s the same thing in (livestock farming). We’re improving genetics, we’re doing a better job with nutrition and health management … We really are making progress.”

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