Americans will devour 66 million turkeys this holiday season, including 46 million birds at Thanksgiving and 22 million at Christmas.
While Americans may be among the world’s most prodigious consumer of turkeys, turkeys have also become an increasingly popular holiday food in Mexico. In addition to such traditional dishes as posole (a pork and hominy stew), tamales and ponche navideño (Mexican Christmas punch), turkey with mole sauce or an “American-style” roasted turkey will grace many a Mexican holiday table.
Ninety percent of those turkeys, moreover, will have come from American farms – in part thanks to NAFTA.
Since the passage of NAFTA in 1993, Mexico has become the biggest consumer of U.S. poultry meat in the world, purchasing roughly 150,000 tons of U.S. turkey meat in 2016 and about 638,000 tons of chicken – or more than a fifth of all U.S. poultry exports. The National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation both call Mexico the “Most Important U.S. Poultry Export Market.”
Prior to the trade agreement, Mexico severely restricted the amount of U.S. poultry that could enter the country by imposing high tariffs and requiring “import licenses” from companies that wanted to sell U.S. chicken and turkey. NAFTA eliminated all restrictions on U.S. turkey meat, granting “duty-free market access,” and dramatically lowered trade barriers on U.S. chicken. In particular, Mexico agreed to let a certain amount of U.S. chicken to be sold at a lower tariffs or duty-free (a “tariff-rate quota”).
The impact was immediate, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Exports of chicken meat to Mexico doubled from an annual average of 61,007 tons in 1989-1993 to 120,000 tons a year from 1994-2000, while turkey exports nearly tripled over the same period, from $42 million to $105 million. Today, U.S. turkey farmers send $348 million worth of exports to Mexico, which has been a boon for states with flourishing poultry production.
“Our success in the Mexican market is a key component of the profitability of our industry and means many thousands of jobs,” testified industry representative Kevin J. Brosch before Congress earlier this year.
America’s turkey industry directly employs about 63,000 people, according to the National Turkey Federation, including farmers, processors, distributors and other workers. Many of these jobs are in Minnesota, leads the way in turkey production – producing nearly 46 million turkeys a year – while North Carolina and Arkansas are not far behind.
According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, the turkey business supports 26,000 jobs in the state and generates more than $800 million in economic activity each year. Ninety percent of Minnesota turkeys are also exported out of the state (including to other parts of the country), with Mexico, China, Canada and Benin the top foreign destinations.
While U.S. poultry producers say they support changes to modernize NAFTA, risking the success this industry has seen is likely something they don’t want on the table. Just the turkey.
Want to try turkey with mole sauce? Here’s a recipe courtesy of the Food Network:
Anne Kim is a contributing editor to Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020 from the New Press. Her writings on economic opportunity, social policy, and higher education have appeared in numerous national outlets, including the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, Governing and Atlantic.com, among others. She is a veteran of the think tanks the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way as well as of Capitol Hill, where she worked for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Anne has a law degree from Duke University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.