The strange story of turkey tails speaks volumes about globalized food system
Intensive livestock farming is a huge global industry that serves up millions of tons of beef, pork and poultry every year. When I asked one producer recently to name something his industry thinks about that consumers don’t, he replied, “Beaks and butts.” This was his shorthand for animal parts that consumers – especially in wealthy nations – don’t choose to eat.
On Thanksgiving, turkeys will adorn close to 90 percent of U.S. dinner tables. But one part of the bird never makes it to the groaning board, or even to the giblet bag: the tail. The fate of this fatty chunk of meat shows us the bizarre inner workings of our global food system, where eating more of one food produces less-desirable cuts and parts. This then creates demand elsewhere – so successfully in some instances that the foreign part becomes, over time, a national delicacy.
Savored in Samoa
Rather than letting turkey tails go to waste, the poultry industry saw a business opportunity. The target: Pacific Island communities, where animal protein was scarce. In the 1950s U.S. poultry firms began dumping turkey tails, along with chicken backs, into markets in Samoa. (Not to be outdone, New Zealand and Australia exported “mutton flaps,” also known as sheep bellies, to the Pacific Islands.) With this strategy, the turkey industry turned waste into gold.
By 2007 the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year – a food that had been unknown there less than a century earlier. That’s nearly triple Americans’ annual per capita turkey consumption.
When I interviewed Samoans recently for my book “No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise,” it was immediately clear that some considered this once-foreign food part of their island’s national cuisine. When I asked them to list popular “Samoan foods,” multiple people mentioned turkey tails – frequently washed down with a cold Budweiser.
How did imported turkey tails become a favorite among Samoa’s working class? Here lies a lesson for health educators: The tastes of iconic foods cannot be separated from the environments in which they are eaten. The more convivial the atmosphere, the more likely people will be to have positive associations with the food.
Food companies have known this for generations. It’s why Coca-Cola has been ubiquitous in baseball parks for more than a century, and why many McDonald’s have PlayPlaces. It also explains our attachment to turkey and other classics at Thanksgiving. The holidays can be stressful, but they also are a lot of fun.
As Julia, a 20-something Samoan, explained to me, “You have to understand that we eat turkey tails at home with family. It’s a social food, not something you’ll eat when you’re alone.”
Turkey tails also come up in discussions of the health epidemic gripping these islands. American Samoa has an obesity rate of 75 percent. Samoan officials grew so concerned that they banned turkey tail imports in 2007.
But asking Samoans to abandon this cherished food overlooked its deep social attachments. Moreover, under World Trade Organization rules, countries and territories generally cannot unilaterally ban the import of commodities unless there are proven public health reasons for doing so. Samoa was forced to lift its ban in 2013 as a condition of joining the WTO, notwithstanding its health worries.