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Poultry pardons: they’re not just for presidents | COMMENTARY

One of the two national Thanksgiving turkeys, 'Corn' and 'Cob,' is presented to journalists in the Grand Ballroom of the Willard InterContinental Hotel Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The birds, raised by Iowa turkey farmers Ron and Susie Kardel, were to be pardoned ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday by President Donald Trump in a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House.
One of the two national Thanksgiving turkeys, 'Corn' and 'Cob,' is presented to journalists in the Grand Ballroom of the Willard InterContinental Hotel Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The birds, raised by Iowa turkey farmers Ron and Susie Kardel, were to be pardoned ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday by President Donald Trump in a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In November of 1863, President Lincoln was faced with a choice that was typical among his presidential duties, but was particularly unusual given the circumstances. The case at hand: whether to approve of an execution or to show mercy and grant clemency. His son Tad reportedly pleaded with his father to let the doomed go free, which apparently affected the president’s thinking.

And thus began the strangely American tradition in which a president “pardons” a turkey shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday.

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The tradition Lincoln started was short-lived, and in fact seems to have gone dormant for a full century before another president took pity on a turkey destined for the holiday table.

Fast forward exactly one hundred years to 1963 and just days before his assassination, President Kennedy was presented with a turkey by the poultry industry in its annual Thanksgiving publicity event. Instead of having the bird slaughtered and dressed for the White House dinner table as expected, JFK intervened on behalf of the animal, stating “let’s keep him going.” Almost certainly he was unaware that by employing his presidential pardon powers to free a turkey, Kennedy was invoking Lincoln’s legacy.

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The tradition seems to have skipped several presidents and wasn’t again revived until the 1980s, when presidents began embracing the idea of turkey “pardoning,” which has continued annually to this day. Even Presidents Obama and Trump found common ground, both embracing the same policy of turkey-sparing each November.

For what exact crime these birds are being “pardoned” remains unclear. Their most likely offense seems to be that they had the misfortune of being born into the wrong species. But the ceremonies always provide a good laugh for reporters and White House staff alike just before a holiday in which tens of millions of turkeys are consumed by Americans.

While it’s nice to contemplate the one or two turkeys who evade the slaughterhouse, most of us try to avoid thinking too much about what happens to the turkeys who meet a different fate in the run-up to the holiday season. Neither their lives nor their deaths are considered polite Thanksgiving dinner conversation. But increasingly, even those of us who aren’t presidents have more and more options to grant pardons to turkeys, should we wish to carry on Lincoln’s legacy.

In the 21st century, plant-based meats have advanced to the point where even those who favor the taste of turkey can enjoy it without the need to raise and slaughter birds. And some startups today are even hinting at the ultimate turkey pardon: They’re now producing real turkey meat outside of the animals’ bodies, instead growing turkey cells into meat without the need to raise and slaughter animals. Having eaten this kind of “cultivated meat” myself as book research, I can attest to its favorable and satisfying nature.

Even the U.S. government — beyond the Oval Office — finds this turkey-pardoning technology promising, with the National Science Foundation recently granting University of California-Davis $3.55 million to advance the school’s Cultivated Meat Consortium research. Such a method of producing the same kind of meat with far less land, less water, fewer greenhouse gases and without slaughter isn’t a commercial reality just yet, but meat companies are working on it. As Tyson Foods’ then-CEO told Bloomberg, “If we can grow the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?”

Turkeys, the only commonly eaten farm animal native to the Americas, have long fascinated our country. Nearly a century before Lincoln became the first to pardon one, Ben Franklin argued that compared to our national symbol of the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird.” Sadly, our relationship with these creatures hasn’t been one that would give turkeys much reason to pardon us if the tables were turned.

Fortunately, we now find ourselves in a position to start a new relationship with these birds and other animals too, as food technology continues to give us ways to enjoy the foods we love but with a much lighter footprint. Whether or not we share Lincoln’s love for animals, that’s something for which we can all be grateful this holiday season.

Paul Shapiro (paul@paul-shapiro.com) is the author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World,” and the CEO of The Better Meat Co.

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