A Patuxet Native American by the name of Squanto saved the Pilgrims from mass starvation back in 1621 when he taught the idealistic settlers how to survive the first, desolate winter at Plymouth.  The expatriate English families were so enthralled with the fact that they were still breathing that they decided to commemorate the day each year to give thanks for their deliverance. 

The residents of Los Angeles County in 2009 don’t face the threat of starvation or the need to store up food for the winter—thanks to the neighborhood supermarket. 

However, most people living in the county are blissfully unaware of how close things came this year to a Thanksgiving without turkey, a somber possibility that would have sent shockwaves through the world of commodity analysts and cranberry relish manufacturers alike.  In the end, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner was saved by the same spirit of cooperation that allowed the original Pilgrims to survive that desolate winter. 

The first sign that something was not right with regard to turkeys was the fall of 2008 when, seemingly randomly, some grocers reported being cited for utilizing temporary refrigerators or “turkey trailers” to store the massive volume of birds necessary to meet the demand of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Other grocers reported no change in policy.  Grocers have used temporary trailers for decades during the holidays to meet the huge demand for turkeys over a short period of time.  The trailers outfitted to store the excess inventory are the same ones used to ship food oversees and across the continent from factories to distribution warehouses and are considered safe by national and state standards. 

To make matters worse, some grocers going to the Department of Public Health for advice on how to obtain a “permit” were told that no such request existed and others were ordered to meet a list of unrealistic demands that were inconsistent with Cal. Code provisions.  In general, a period of mass confusion reigned, with individual inspectors giving out ad hoc orders and other inspectors continuing to consider the trailers as an extension of the grocer’s existing health permit. Grocers became desperate to provide their customers with the turkeys that had long come to be a symbol of the holiday. 

As the clock ticked closer to Thanksgiving, further clarification came down that the trailers were not mentioned in the Cal Code and therefore were not permissible under state law and would have to be removed.  Through appeals, grocers were able to keep the trailers in place long enough to provide Angelenos with turkeys and the accoutrements needed to put on a hearty holiday meal.  Residents sank glazed-eyed into La-Z-Boy recliners, oblivious to the controversy surrounding the birds.

Notwithstanding the temporary reprieve, grocers started 2009 with uncertainty on how to interpret the preceding chaos and prepare for this holiday season.  The County’s contention the Cal. Code precluded turkey trailers because they were not expressly identified in the provisions, left industry observers perplexed.  For instance, when the Cal. Code was first implemented in 2001, statewide standardization training contained exercises that recommended that “a refrigerated trailer would be useful” when confronted with the need to store large volumes of chickens. 

Additionally, there had been no record of an intention to outlaw turkey trailers when the Cal. Code was being drafted, so their non-reference in the Code did not seem particularly troublesome to grocers.

In April, grocers sat down to discuss the issue with Public Health administrators and inspectors in an attempt to find a solution to the problem.  After all, no one wants to be responsible for the decimation of an American tradition or the creation of a vibrant underground trade in black market turkeys. 

The County agreed that public health was not at imminent risk from the long-standing trade practices but still expressed concern about the lack of direction from the Cal. Code. 

In the end, health officials agreed to let the grocers continue to operate the trailers during the 2009 holiday season and to view them as under the control of the stores’ existing health permits.  If a store is scheduled for an inspection, civil servants will examine the trailers as they would any other portion of the permitted location. 

Turkeys will be around this year but the reprieve for 2009 is not a permanent solution to the trailer issue.  A Public Health committee is reviewing the subject and is expected to submit a proposal to County Counsel sometime in 2010 for legal review. 

Let us hope that the Public Health administrators get into the spirit of Thanksgiving and allow the turkey and gravy to keep flowing next year. 

Matthew Dodson is the Director of Local Government Relations for the California Grocers Association.