Friday, November 16, 2012

President Obama Will Pardon Cargill Turkeys At 2012 White House Thanksgiving Ceremony

19-week-old, 40-pound Toms from Virginia will be the stars of the Presidential Flock...
 UPDATE, Nov. 21:  Meet Cobbler and Gobbler, the Top Toms
Next Wednesday, Nov. 21, just hours after he returns home in the very early morning from a four-day trip to Asia, President Obama will participate in that quintessentially American White House tradition, the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation.  2012 marks the 65th anniversary of the ceremony orchestrated annually since 1947 by the National Turkey Federation, though presidential turkey presentations date back to the days of President Abraham Lincoln(Above: The President looks on as daughter Malia pets last year's pardoned tom, Liberty)

During the fourth and final pardon of his first term, President Obama will grant clemency to two glorious Toms--an heir and a spare, so to speak--raised for Cargill Value Added Meats Retail at Miller Farm in Rockingham County, Virginia, saving them from the fate of the 46 million birds that Americans will eat during this year's holiday. The 2:00 PM event will be held in the Rose Garden--or if the weather is uncooperative, under the North Portico.

The President will be presented with the National Thanksgiving Turkey by Steve Willardsen, President of Cargill, headquartered in Wichita, KS, and Board Chairman of the Federation, said spokesman Peggy Albertson. And Craig and Nancy Miller, the married couple who raised the birds for Cargill at their Shenandoah Valley farm will be at the ceremony.  The Toms are the first Virginia birds to be honored since 1994, and were hatched on July 13 in a Cargill facility in Harrisonburg, part of a 40-member Presidential Flock hand-trained by the Millers to prepare for their big moment in the spotlight. (Above: Two of the Presidential gobblers)

The duo that will be pardoned by President Obama will be selected from the flock this weekend, Albertson said.  Fed on a diet of primarily corn and soy, the white, broad-breasted gobblers will be 19 weeks old and weigh an astonishing 40 pounds each when President Obama grants them clemency, a dramatic difference from the twenty-pound organic birds the White House chefs plan to cook for the First Family's Thanksgiving feast on Thursday.  The Presidential Flock was raised separately from the 43,000 other turkeys the Millers raised for Cargill.

Virginia has about 300 turkey farms and it is the nation's fifth largest turkey producer, with Minnesota, home to last year's pardoned Toms, number one, said Albertson.  Actual pardons for turkeys were first formally instituted by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, according to the White House.  Other turkeys presented to Presidents were as likely to wind up on the White House Thanksgiving table as spared.

Joined by daughters Malia and Sasha each year for the ceremony, President Obama in the past has peppered his pardons with jokes; last year, in the midst of issuing Executive Orders to bypass an inactive Congress, he cracked that the turkey pardon was one more in his series of "We can't wait" initiatives.  In 2010, he quipped that the pardon is "one of the most important duties that I carry out as President."

One thing the President will be unlikely to joke about this year:  Federation chair Willardsen was president of Cargill in August of 2011 when the company issued one of the largest Class 1 meat recalls in US history.  Cargill voluntarily recalled more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey after it was linked to an outbreak of the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, which killed at least one citizen in California, and made dozens of others ill. Willardsen was point man for the public apology.

Albertson doesn't expect that the issue will overshadow the White House ceremony.  The recall "was well over a year ago," she said.

"The turkey industry has redoubled its efforts to do more in food safety, so they're not feeling concerned."

Turkey food safety falls under the rubric of the Department of Agriculture, but President Obama has come under enormous criticism for his Administration's food safety issues with the FDA, in particular the failure to implement parts of the Food Safety Modernization Act.  Cargill's turkey complex in Virginia includes a hatchery, feed mill, processing plant and distribution center; the recall was from a Cargill plant in Springdale, Ark.  Cargill grows and harvests 45 million turkeys annually in nine plants across the nation, generating more than $6 billion in sales from turkeys and cooked meats.

Training the Toms...
An heir and a spare are always chosen from the Presidential flock: There's a "stunt double" Tom waiting in the White House wings in case the #1 gobbler can't "perform his duties," which takes place in front of invited guests and a huge scrum of media gleefully capturing the nail-biting moment when the President meets supersized poultry.  The Millers provided extensive training to the gobblers to ensure there will be no ruffled feathers when the Toms are surrounded by people, flashing camera lights, and noise during the ceremony. (Above:  A member of the Presidential flock)

"The turkeys have had rock music played for them, and have been trained to stand on a stage table," Albertson said.  "They're doing really well."

During the 2010 ceremony, President Obama joked that the turkey selection is like reality TV.

"It’s kind of like a turkey version of 'Dancing With the Stars,' except the stakes for the contestants was much higher," President Obama said, to much laughter. "Only one pair would survive and win the big prize: Life--and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington."

The birds' names will be announced by the White House on Wednesday, ostensibly selected from a list created by school children in Rockingham County. Members of the Presidential Flock have visited local elementary schools in the last few weeks, and took a star turn at the Virginia State Fair near Richmond and at the Rockingham County Fair.  For biosecurity reasons, the birds who interacted with the public were removed from the Presidential Flock, according to Cargill; "those removed from the pool have been placed at petting zoos or other "no kill" animal facilities," the company said.

Special treatment for the Toms...
On Monday, the Toms will have a lavish send-off from Virginia, with a ceremony at West Rockingham Ruritan Park in Harrisonburg, Albertson said, which will be open to the public.  When they arrive in Washington, DC, the birds will have the kind of experience afforded high-profile dignitaries, staying in a specially prepared suite at the lavish W Washington DC Hotel, located two blocks from the White House.  For the last three years, the hotel has made a big deal out of the pardon ceremony, creating a special gourmet menu for the turkeys that includes "W Munchie Boxes" filled with acorns, corn, and berries, and providing them with deluxe accommodations, a far cry from the pens the birds were raised in.  (Above: One of Presidential Toms displays his tail feathers)

After their big White House star-turn, the Toms will go off to a farm version of luxury.  They'll live out their days at the nationally recognized livestock facility at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, the glorious, historically preserved farm/estate of the first American President, George Washington.  It's located in Virginia, about a half hour from the White House.  The Toms will be featured in the Christmas at Mount Vernon program through January 6, 2013.

Last year's National Turkeys, Liberty and his alternate Peace, are thriving at Mount Vernon, said Albertson, who recently paid a visit.

"They're doing great," Albertson said.  "They're spoiled."

The California duo President Obama pardoned in 2010, Apple and his alternate Cider, died within months of arriving at Mount Vernon.  The North Carolina duo the President pardoned in 2009, Courage and his alternate Carolina, were the grand marshals at the Disneyland Thanksgiving Parade in Anaheim, California, in the final year of that particular tradition, and have long since passed on.

Virginia is the 5th largest turkey producer in the nation, with 17.5 million birds raised annually, and the poultry industry providing 13,480 direct jobs and 41,710 jobs indirectly, Albertson said, adding that it is the number two source of agriculture income statewide.  Minnesota, homestate of last year's pardoned gobblers, is the nation's top turkey producer, raising 47 million birds annually.  North Carolina ranks second.

A National Turkey Federation video about this year's Presidential Flock:

*Related:  Click here for the 2012 Obama White House Thanksgiving menu and recipes 

*Cage photo from Cargill; other photos and video of the Presidential Flock courtesy of the National Turkey Federation