Israelis gobble up more turkey than anyone, thanks in part to ‘pastrami’

What for many in the US is a once-a-year treat is daily fare for plenty of locals

Eastern US wild turkey (Photo credit: Dimus/Wikimedia)
Eastern US wild turkey (Photo credit: Dimus/Wikimedia)

In the United States, the consumption of a succulent bird for Thanksgiving’s holiday feast is so ubiquitous that the festival is often referred to as “Turkey Day.”

But in Israel, every day is turkey day – with the country leading the world in per capita consumption of turkey. Statistics from Israel’s turkey industry, Agriculture Ministry and Foreign Ministry show that the average Israeli eats about 13 kilos (over 28 pounds) of turkey annually, nearly double the approximately 7.26 kilos (16.7 pounds) eaten by Americans on average. In 2004, daily per capita consumption of turkey in Israel totaled 46.34 grams and chicken totaled 153.09 grams. Turkey represents about a quarter of Israel’s meat production, and half of its fowl output. The country produces over 125,000 tons of turkey per year, making it eighth in overall turkey production worldwide. More than half of that is exported, mostly to the European Union.

Israel has also been an innovator in the use of turkey in prepared and processed foods. According to the Agriculture Ministry, “turkey pastrami” — like the real thing, but made out of turkey — was invented in Israel (actually, according to some sources, pastrami itself was invented by Romanian Jews as a way to preserve beef). And pastrami, according to Israeli turkey farmer Yaron Glover, who raises turkeys in the center of the country, is how Israel got to be number one in turkey consumption.

“In the early days of the state, getting meat to Israelis was a problem,” he said. “The country was poor so it couldn’t afford to import too much beef, and chickens required refrigeration, which many Israelis did not have at the time.” In order to provide meat protein to the masses, authorities in Israel turned to preserved meats, like pastrami and salami, that could be stored for weeks without refrigeration.

“Turkey, because it is a tougher meat than chicken, proved to be a better choice for pastrami production, so farms started raising turkeys,” he said.

Because there were many turkey producers – who received state subsidies – production remained high. As Israelis started getting refrigerators, producers began marketing turkey parts – legs, breasts, chopped turkey, etc. – and later used the birds for the first Israeli convenience foods, such as frozen turkey patties and “schnitzel,” which was usually made not of a whole piece of turkey breast, said Glover, but formed out of end pieces, skin, and other “leftover” production pieces that couldn’t be sold as is.

“Israelis got used to turkey, and manufacturers got used to using it in food production, so that even today when most Israelis can afford meat and chicken and have the refrigerator and freezer space, turkey is still very popular,” he added.

According to Foreign Ministry officials, Israeli turkey is very popular in Europe. The local turkey industry has “a high level of automation and strict hygienic conditions,” and “development of disease-resistant breeds has contributed to high meat production. A wide variety of turkey products is exported, mainly to Western Europe,” where they are in high demand, the spokesperson added.

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