Turkey’s Story: A Fowl Tale of the Death of Diversity : Thanksgiving: How well do we know the bird we invite to our table? Our love for white meat takes a toll.


Turkey No. 146-I, a snow-white bird with a breast as big as a basketball, has plummeted to the bottom of his particular pecking order.

He is a big bird, perhaps 30 pounds. But he’s too big for his spindly legs, which have collapsed. No. 146-I no longer can support the weight of his white meat.

Since every flock needs one bird to pick on, the other turkeys have shredded No. 146-I’s back and plucked feathers from his wings. The bird squats in sawdust in a dimly lit room, head bent to the floor, while the other turkeys murmur musically around him.


Turkey No. 146-I will not make it to Thanksgiving.


This time of year, millions of Americans form a brief but intense relationship with a turkey. They stuff it, cook it, baste it, carve it, eat too much of it, save it for sandwiches or just stick it in the refrigerator until the bird goes bad.

But they don’t really know it.

Few people know, for instance, that 90% of the turkeys sold worldwide are the offspring of a few thousand pedigreed superbirds raised on zealously guarded farms owned by three multinational corporations that control the world market.

They probably don’t know that turkeys have been bred to have breasts so swollen with white meat that they are too clumsy to mate and often can’t stand on their own two drumsticks. Almost every turkey is the result of artificial insemination.

They probably aren’t aware that some scientists consider the turkey the most vivid example of a serious problem: the lack of genetic variety in the food we eat, and the potential that a single disease could wipe out an entire food source.

The golden birds beheaded by everyone from the pilgrims to the parents of baby boomers are now mere novelties kept genetically alive by poultry fanciers who award each other ribbons for breeding turkeys that look, well, like turkeys.

In Wooster, on a research farm where scientists try to fix the flaws that occur when humans recreate a creature to fit their culture, this is just common knowledge.



Turkey No. 146-I is one of 1,000 birds who live at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center, a 2,000-acre campus in central Ohio where the trees, plants, animals and even some of the lawns exist to be studied and improved.

At the Turkey Research Unit, a key project is breeding leg strength back into today’s top-heavy breeders, which are twice the size they were 35 years ago.

Since the 1980s, leg strength has been a serious problem because the industry has focused on getting more breast for its buck--Americans prefer white meat 2-1.

“Industry is too shortsighted,” said Dr. Karl Nestor, the resident poultry geneticist.

Nestor, a gaunt, weathered West Virginian who eats plenty of poultry--white meat, please--to combat high cholesterol, has seen the turkey evolve from quaint American icon to medicine ball-sized meat machine.

Now, he hopes to unlock their genetic changes as well with the help of 50 bullet-shaped vials of blood. The plasma, obtained just recently, comes from 11 so-called “foundation lines” of turkeys owned by the major breeders.

This is blood from the 7,000 to 10,000 breeder turkeys that beget all the birds that wind up as ersatz bacon, bologna and, of course, Thursday’s dinner.


“I was really surprised they gave it to me,” Nestor, 57, said with a grin.

Now Nestor hopes to find out just how much genetic diversity is left inside these inbred, overfed flocks of Frankensteinian fowl.

Though microbiologists here will need six months to conduct DNA fingerprinting tests, Nestor said early results show a disturbing similarity between four genes that contribute to disease resistance.

Some scientists argue that lack of genetic variation in many farm products makes them more susceptible to one well-placed viral knockout punch.

In 1970, 15% of the U.S. corn crop was destroyed by blight. In the mid-19th Century, the Irish potato crop crashed, causing famine that killed a million people. The reasons for both: dominant plant varieties were too genetically alike and therefore vulnerable to the same enemy.

The birds themselves are so delicate they must live in environmentally controlled buildings. Last summer’s heat wave killed 2 million nationwide.

Dr. Roy Crawford, a Canadian poultry geneticist who wrote a book about turkey genes, said a mutant virus or breeding mistake could devastate the population.


“The turkey breeders do not seem concerned, but in theoretical terms, there is a danger,” he said.

The industry insists there is plenty of genetic diversity left.

“Dr. Crawford is by far one of the leading geneticists, but his concern I heard when I came into the business 22 years ago,” said Dr. Paul Marini, research director for the No. 2 breeder, Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms of Sonoma, Calif.

“If we aren’t watching ourselves, yes, we could get into trouble. But, in general, there is a lot of diversity.”

Dr. Clifford Nixey, geneticist for the industry leader, British United Turkey, said his firm keeps backup stocks of traditional colored breeds.

“It is possible that in developing these modern turkeys, we’ve lost some of these genes, possibly taste or meat quality, or disease resistance,” he said.


Turkey is native to the Americas, though some genes did spend time abroad. Early Spanish explorers took wild turkeys back to Europe, where the birds were domesticated.


The colonialists brought them back and mated them with their wild cousins. From these crossbreeds sprang the textbook bronze turkey and such colorful barnyard breeds as the Narragansett.

After World War II, competition to feed growing families intensified. Breeders vied to make bigger, more fertile and faster-growing breeder turkeys that could spawn offspring that would reach edible size quickly.

By the 1950s, turkeys were getting so big the birds were having problems mating, said Dr. Francine Bradley, a poultry geneticist at the University of California-Davis.

The first response was to build little saddles for the females so the males could climb aboard. Finally, two California poultry professors perfected a technique that ruined the birds’ social lives: artificial insemination.

“That literally saved the turkey industry,” Bradley said.

In 1957, poultry breeder George Nicholas marketed the first white turkey. Given the choice, shoppers preferred a turkey that lacked the dots of pigment on a plucked bronze bird. By the early 1960s, white turkeys ruled.

Over time, three breeders most adept at creating the turkey to fit the times came to dominate 90% of the market. The three kings of avian art:


* British United Turkeys, owned by Merck & Co., the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company.

* Nicholas, owned by London-based Booker PLC, a global food giant.

* Hybrid Turkeys was owned by British Petroleum until last year and is now owned by its managers.

The secrets of their success lie in the small flocks of pedigreed turkeys that each hold various pieces of the genetic puzzles that are assembled to make the firms’ commercial birds.

The precious foundation-line birds are protected like mob informants the day before testimony. The companies fear outbreaks of avian diseases that can wipe out a foundation flock.

An outbreak of avian influenza in 1983-84 led to the destruction of 17 million birds in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The eradication effort cost $65 million and sent egg and poultry prices shooting up.

“No visitors at all. People can carry an organism in their nostrils,” says British United Turkey geneticist Clifford Nixey.


Bradley’s visits to the Nicholas operation in Sonoma are cleansing experiences.

“Your vehicle, before you get on a ranch, the undercarriage is steamed, washed, sanitized,” said Bradley.

“You strip. You go into a shower, you get coveralls, boots. The whole thing.”

Since 1966, the average breeder hen has ballooned from about 15 pounds to more than 24; the male from nearly 21 pounds to almost 35.

Their offspring, the supermarket turkeys, generally weigh between 10-20 pounds. The top-seller is Butterball, a product of ConAgra Inc.

The agribusiness prefers a 15-pound Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms bird because, Marini said, “the ConAgra people think it looks great in a bag.”


Talking Turkey

Some facts about turkeys and the turkey industry in the United States:

Killing Most Fowl

Turkeys can live two decades, but few do; most die by age 2. Here’s how: Birds are taken off the truck and hung upside down on shackles. They then move down a conveyor through a bath of brine charged with electricity. Birds are stunned senseless, and pass groggily by a rotary blade that slits their throats. A fatality-control worker stands by to finish off the birds in case they survive.


An Old Wives’ Tale

Turkeys are so stupid they’ll stare up at the rain until they drown. (Experts say the birds are merely cleaning themselves.)

The Dark Side

In the United States, white meat is wanted 2-1. These countries desire dark flesh: Chile, Israel, Mexico and Japan.

Dominant Turkey Breeders

* Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms of California, owned by Booker of Britain.

* British United Turkeys, owned by Merck of New Jersey.

* Hybrid Turkeys Canada, owned by European investors.

Top 10 Turkey-Meat Marketers

1. Butterball Turkey Inc., owned by ConAgra Inc. of Omaha, Neb.

2. Wampler Longacre Inc., owned by WLR Foods Inc. of Broadway, Va.

3. Jennie-O, owned by Hormel Foods Corp of Austin, Minn.

4. Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis.

5. Rocco Inc. of Harrisonburg, Va.

6. Carolina Turkeys of Mount Olive, N.C.

7. Mr. Turkey, owned by Sara Lee Corp. of Chicago.

8. Louis Rich, which is owned by Oscar Meyer, which is owned by Kraft General Foods Inc., which is owned by Philip Morris.

9. Jerome Foods Inc. of Barron, Wis.

10. Norbest Inc. of Salt Lake City.

Economies of Fowl

In the United States, turkey is a $2.67-billion industry. About 300 million birds are produced annually. The average American, er, gobbles 18.3 pounds per annum, down nearly a pound since 1991. Turkey-business growth has slowed significantly since the double-digit years of the 1980s.

Guinea Pig Poultry

At Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Turkey Research Unit, which tries to improve turkey, fertility and growth experiments are run first on Japanese quail because they mature faster. Quail start laying eggs at six weeks; turkey, 30. One experiment: After cross-breeding the biggest birds in the brood continuously for 33 generations (a couple of years), curious researchers raised quail that weighed 200 grams. A normal quail the same age weighs 20 grams.

Source: Associated Press