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Gob Stopper: These birds fear only one thing--Thanksgiving.

Talking Turkey

The real story on the bird that's come to represent American Thanksgiving

By Stett Holbrook

Don't get me wrong. I love Thanksgiving and turkey and all that. A leisurely day spent eating and drinking in the company of family and friends is something I look forward to every year. And pausing to count our blessings and give thanks is time well spent.

But the holiday is a sham. It's the celebration of a potent American myth. And at the center of it all is the roasted turkey that's served on virtually every Thanksgiving table.

Even if the religious fundamentalists with the

funny hats really did sit down with the locals for a feel-good meal near Plymouth Rock way back in the 17th century, neither Pilgrim nor Indian would recognize the turkey we serve today as the centerpiece of our most "traditional" American holiday meal. The modern turkey is very different from the birds our forefathers ate. Agribusiness has turned the much-feted fowl into a feeble, mass-produced, genetically engineered, bland-tasting, doped-up turkey that is anything but traditional.

What happened to our all-American bird?

Although it's drilled into the heads of elementary school students every November, Pilgrims and their Indian friends didn't start our Thanksgiving tradition by sitting down and feasting together. In her essay "The Invention of Thanksgiving," Janet Suskind, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, explains that there never was a "first Thanksgiving." The holiday was created to cultivate a national identity and unifying values.

Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, but it was only after the Civil War that Thanksgiving celebrations merged with romanticized images of the Pilgrims as America's courageous and pious forefathers who adapted and prospered in the New World. This reformulated Thanksgiving became an effective tool to promote national unity following the divisive war, Suskind says.

The turkey, a native American bird that has been part of Thanksgiving meals since the early 19th century, has come to symbolize America's bounty and the tamed wilderness. But Suskind says there's something odd about the adoration heaped upon the turkey. She offers a provocative explanation.

"Like the Aztec custom of decorating and feasting their human offerings to the gods before the day of sacrifice, the turkey in the farmyard was fed and admired," she says. "More than just a part of wilderness that has been civilized, the Thanksgiving turkey powerfully symbolizes the Indians. ... Like the turkeys, Indians were either wild or domesticated. Although feared, wild Indians were more admirable in a sense, or flavorful, more 'game,' an enemy to be respected, if also to be killed."

If you buy Suskind's analysis, our Thanksgiving ritual has evolved a kind of benevolence over the vanquished at the national level. Since the first Bush administration, each president "pardons" a specially selected turkey at a Rose Garden ceremony and allows it to live out the rest of its days in Frying Pan Park, a demonstration farm in Herdon, Va. The rest of the turkeys raised in the United States aren't so lucky. Each Thanksgiving we gobble down 690 million pounds of white and dark meat.

Giving America the Bird

Unlike the beloved chicken, which originated in Southeast Asia, the turkey is a truly American bird. Early American explorers brought wild turkeys back from Central America to Europe where they thrived in domestication. English settlers carried the domesticated birds back with them to America. These turkeys in turn bred with wild turkeys to produce several early American varieties such as the Jersey Buff, the Narragansett and the Bourbon Red.

In time, turkey farming became a profitable industry in America. In the early 1900s, about 6 million turkeys were being produced annually. This year, an estimated 263 million will be raised. The Bronze turkey, a big bird so named for its brilliant, iridescent bronze plumage, became the favored turkey in the marketplace. Improvements to the Bronze in the 1920s to increase breast size and develop other desirable characteristics established it as the pre-eminent commercial turkey variety. It became known as the Broad-Breasted Bronze.

As the turkey industry grew from one in which consumers killed and processed their own turkeys into one where consumers simply picked out a pre-packed bird in the grocery store, shoppers became more concerned with the appearance of the turkeys they were buying. After plucking, Bronze turkeys and other dark-feathered birds left dots of dark pigment in feather follicles. "White" food--and its association with cleanliness, purity and refinement--has long been part of America's food aesthetic. White sugar, bleached white flour, white rice, white bread were preferred by consumers over the less-processed, oftentimes more healthful, darker-colored food. Turkey fell under the white aesthetic as well. While pinfeather pigment did not affect taste, American shoppers in the 1950s and 1960s, i.e., women, were sensitive to marketing campaigns and cultural biases that placed a premium on whiteness and they began to prefer turkeys with an unblemished appearance.

Breeders crossed the Bronze with white-feathered turkeys such as the White Holland to produce a large-breasted white-feathered bird. The result became known as the "Broad-Breasted White," the "large white" and more tellingly, the "industrial white." This new breed of turkey soon dominated the market and pushed scores of early American varieties to obsolescence, and in some cases, near extinction.

The industrial white turkey is the avian equivalent of a loaf of Wonder Bread. It's lily-white, highly processed and produced with a host of chemical additives. And it doesn't taste very good. Because the bird is harvested young, the flesh doesn't have much flavor or texture. Many producers have taken to selling "basted" turkeys, turkeys injected with flavored saline solution to compensate for the lack of flavor.

"The factory-farmed turkey is a pathetic beast, stupid, earthbound, unable to reproduce without artificial insemination because its huge breasts make conventional turkey sex impossible," says Berkeley-based journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire and a critic of corporate agriculture. "It's been bred for that huge breast, white feathers and rapid growth under factory conditions--everything, in other words, except taste."

Built for Speed

The vast majority of the turkeys consumed in the United States are broad-breasted whites. Call it factory farming or improved efficiency, but the U.S. turkey industry is built for speed. Turkeys are fed a diet of enriched corn and soybean in tightly confined conditions. After hatching, a hen is ready for market in just 14 weeks. Toms take about 18 weeks and, unlike hens, are processed into deli meats, sausage, tenderloins and other products in addition to the whole birds we see on holiday tables.

The rise of the industrial white turkey paralleled the growth of another change in America's food industry: family-run, independent farms that raised a variety of products were being eclipsed by increasingly specialized, corporate-controlled agribusiness giants. In time, the turkey industry moved the formerly outdoor, free-ranging birds indoors to huge, hangarlike barns. The changes allowed the turkey industry and its contract growers to increase production dramatically. But raising thousands of birds cheek-to-jowl--or wattle-to-wattle as it were--was in invitation for disease. As a result, the birds often got sick and had to be given a steady diet of antibiotics to keep them alive in their cramped, unhealthy environment.

The industrialization of the turkey business concentrated production in the hands of an increasingly small number of large corporations. The top three turkey producers in the United States are Cargill Inc., makers of Shady Brook Farms and HoneySuckle brand turkeys; ConAgra Foods, makers of Butterball turkeys; and Jennie-O Turkey Stores, producers of Jennie-O turkeys. The companies hire contract labor to raise their turkeys at operations throughout the United States; most are in the South.

Similarly, turkey breeding is concentrated in three firms. California's Nicholas Turkeys, Canada's Hybrid Turkeys and England's British United Turkeys own the genetic stock that supplies most of the world with white turkeys. Nicholas Turkeys, which is based in Sonoma, was founded in 1939 and developed the first commercially successful white turkey.

"We turned the industry from brown to white," says a proud Paul Marini, director of research for Nicholas Turkeys.

Through additional genetic modification, the modern industrial white turkey has been "improved" to create larger, docile birds better suited to tight confinement. "Beaking," removing the tip of young turkeys' beaks to prevent cannibalism brought on by living in cramped quarters, helps keep the peace, too. These improvements have produced a bird that can no longer mate, fly or even run when at market weight.

"The industry moved toward an animal that met its growing demands," says Chuck Bassett, executive director of American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that seeks to preserve rare but traditional livestock breeds. "But the more and more you manipulate genetics for a trait you jeopardize other traits."

Not only are industrial white turkeys routinely administered antibiotics to fend off illness, but their bulk can cause health problems such as ruptured aortas, joint and bone problems and high blood pressure.

But Marini says these turkeys give the public a good product at a low price.

"The product we sell is wholesome."

In response to consumer demand, however, Nicholas is developing a more disease-resistant bird that requires fewer antibiotics. But improving the conditions in which turkeys are raised doesn't appear to be part of the industry's plans.

Because of genetic engineering, the use of growth hormones and steroids in turkeys isn't necessary. They get preternaturally big on their own. What's more, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't allow the use of hormones in turkey. But antibiotics are a necessity. Shortly before the animals are killed they must be taken off drugs in an effort to reduce antibiotic residue.

In terms of sales, the turkey industry is doing something right. According to the National Turkey Federation, an advocacy group for the turkey industry, Americans eat about 17.4 pounds of turkey per capita. Since 1975, turkey consumption has increased 113 percent. That's because consumers continue to recognize turkey's "good taste and nutritional value," says the turkey federation.

If you're looking for the biggest bang for your buck, the industrial white is one of the cheapest meat products on the market. Frozen whole birds routinely sell for less than $1 a pound and prices generally drop during the holidays. But there is a small but growing market that offers better-tasting alternatives to the hopped-up, industrial white turkey.

Demand for organic, free-range, drug-free, and heritage turkeys is booming. Heritage turkey varieties like the Narragansett and Bronze are our most direct link to what early Americans ate. According to a report by Nutrition Business Journal, the Organic Trade Association and SPINS, an analyst firm for the natural products industry, organic poultry sales in 2003 outpaced the previous year by 112 percent and totaled $46 million.

Born Free

Tim Diestel's family has been in the turkey business for more than 50 years. Back when his great uncle started the company in the Sierra foothills, they were just like everybody else. Their turkeys roamed the grass- and oak-covered hills as they pleased. Poults, young turkeys, were confined indoors, but the adult turkeys could come in and out of the barns. Five decades later, Diestel's methods haven't changed.

"The industry moved, and we didn't," says Diestel, a thin man who looks comfortable in his blue jeans and work boots. "This is really the way it is and the way it was and probably the way it should be."

Diestel raises Broad-Breasted White, Broad-Breasted Bronze and small proprietary turkeys without antibiotics in a free-range environment. He also raises flocks of organically fed birds and plans next year to add a small number of Narragansett and Bourbon Red heritage turkeys. He calls his Bronze turkeys heritage birds, but others dispute the label because they differ from older, "unimproved" varieties. But Diestel thinks they taste better than the older variety.

If you had to be a turkey, you could do worse than Sonora's Diestel Turkey Ranch. The birds roam about and eat at their leisure from a feeder always filled with ground corn and soybeans. The turkeys, particularly the Bronze birds, have quizzical looks and scurry about their spacious pens in spite of their top-heavy girth.

While Diestel adheres to sustainable agricultural practices, he's no pony-tailed hippie farmer. The Bush-Cheney stickers on his pickup truck tell you where his political sympathies lie. He's guided by business realities. The turkey industry gives growers two choices: "It's got to be cheaper or better," he says.

He chose better. Because his turkeys spend time trotting around outdoors they develop more muscles, which makes for better-textured meat. They also live two months longer than conventionally raised turkeys, allowing the birds to put on more fat and develop better flavor. The slower growth rate and simple diet staves off the stress and disease that can plague turkeys grown in industrial settings, he says.

He compares what's happened to the turkey industry and the food industry at large to the cheese business. Artificial ingredients, mass production and poor taste have become the standard and now people associate a slice of rubbery orange Kraft cheese with cheese.

"But it's really not cheese," he says with a disapproving look.

Shelton's Poultry in Pomona has been raising turkeys for the past 80 years. It offers organic and free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys. Its turkeys are the same white birds produced by conventional turkey farmers but are raised in more spacious outdoor pens, says Matt Flanagan, vice president of the family-run business.

"We give them a lot more breathing room," he says. "If you smash them all in an outside pen they're really not free range."

The organically raised birds eat certified organic grains, a healthy but expensive diet that is triple the cost of nonorganic feed. Feed costs and special handling are the big reasons organic turkeys cost more, Flanagan says. His organic turkeys sell for about $4.50 a pound and the free-range birds go for about $3 a pound. But because turkeys are often served for special meals like Thanksgiving, he says the price is worth it.

"It doesn't really cost that much more to get the best," he says. "They just taste better."

While heritage turkeys are a miniscule segment of an industry that produced an estimated 269 million turkeys in 2003, these birds are giving consumers a traditional holiday dinner alternative they never had.

Glenn Drowns, an Iowa farmer and science teacher, raises rare turkey varieties in hopes of keeping early American breeds like the Bourbon, Royal Palm and Slate alive and to preserve their genetic diversity. His Sand Hill Preservation Center, which sells live turkeys to farmers, is a part of the growing heritage turkey movement, raising all-but-forgotten breeds of American turkeys.

Curious how industrial white turkey would fare in the same conditions as his heritage birds, Drowns raised a group of both. Immediately, he found the white turkeys shivered at the slightest breeze and panted madly in warmer temperatures while the heritage birds were unfazed. Many of the white turkeys died. In the end, only seven of the 37 broad-breasted turkeys survived. The heritage birds fared far better.

Drowns calls the vulnerability of industrial turkeys the plastic-bubble syndrome, a tenuous system that leaves turkey farmers in fear of contamination and disease and reliant on antibiotics and turbo-charged feed. "Is that where we really want our food supply to come from?"

In 1997, there were just 1,300 breeding heritage turkeys left, a number that brought many breeds close to extinction. But thanks to the marketing efforts of Slow Food USA, an organization that celebrates artisanal and traditional food, heritage turkeys' numbers tripled in 2003 to 4,275. But many breeds are still at risk of disappearing, says Marjorie Bender, research and program manager for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Two years ago Slow Food USA developed Heritage Foods USA, a company that sells heritage turkeys and other venerable American food like American Indian harvested wild rice, Berkshire pork and the American Buff goose.

Heritage turkeys, which are available at a number of retail and mail-order outlets, are generally smaller than conventional turkeys. Fans of these birds say they taste better because they're more mature than conventional turkeys and have a flavorful layer of fat that other turkeys lack.

Most heritage turkeys are raised for six to eight months and reach a maximum weight of about 25 pounds. Because the turkeys take longer to mature and require more space to move about, they command higher prices, about $3 to $5 a pound.

The use of the term "heritage turkey" is not regulated and the particular breed is often not labeled. While they are not necessarily organic or antibiotic-free, Bender says most producers raise them in free-range conditions that produce a more robust, healthy bird that doesn't require antibiotics. She recommends buying the birds directly from reputable breeders or grocers.

Slow Food in Santa Cruz

Capitola resident Roger Mastrude founded a Slow Food chapter in Santa Cruz County and is a zealous supporter of heritage turkeys. He founded the Heritage Turkey Foundation in effort to regulate use of the term heritage turkey on labels.

"If we leave it be they'll just reindustrialize [heritage turkeys]," he warns. "I want to block them."

He's trademarked the term "California Heritage Turkey" and wants to license use of the term to right-minded heritage turkey farmers. So far the organization is no bigger than him but he hopes to get public support for his efforts.

This year, Heritage Food USA sold all of its 10,000 turkeys. That's double the amount sold last year. The company's goal is to capture 1 percent of the U.S. turkey market, says co-founder Patrick Martins. Martins says many turkey farmers were eager to get into the heritage turkey business because it offers an independence from large commercial farms where they were essentially piece-rate contractors for poultry industry giants like Jennie-O and Butterball.

"They were completely at the mercy of the big companies," he says. "No matter what they did they had no power."

In addition to throwing a lifeline to struggling farms and helping to rescue turkey populations teetering on the edge of extinction, Martins says reviving a market for heritage turkeys expands the genetic diversity of a turkey industry that is dominated by one single breed.

"It's a food security issue," he says. "It's just wrong when all 250 million turkeys sold in this country are all the same breed. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket."

Heritage turkeys are a niche market and supplies are limited. While the number of growers and turkeys available is growing each year, it's best to start planning for your next Thanksgiving turkey early. But it's worth the wait, says Bender of the livestock conservancy.

"There's nothing like it," she says. "They taste fantastic."

What The Labels Mean

ORGANIC: Each bird must be fed only organic feed its entire life. An audit trail must be kept

to track the animal from the time it hatches through processing and distribution. Animals may not be given drugs or antibiotics of any kind. The animals must have "outdoor access." This last requirement is subjective.

NATURAL: Natural meat must be free of artificial coloring, flavoring and chemical preservatives and only "minimally processed" in a way that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. No organization verifies the claims of "natural," but the USDA can hold companies accountable for misrepresentation.

FREE RANGE: While popular, this term has little real meaning because of its ambiguity. To be labeled free range, the USDA requires that outdoor access be made available for "an undetermined period each day." The time the birds spent outside, and the quality of that outdoor space, varies widely.

HERITAGE: A heritage turkey, also called a standard turkey, is a nonregulated term that refers to traditional, "heirloom" turkey breeds such as Spanish Black, Jersey Buff, White Midget, Royal Palm and Bourbon Red. These birds are smaller and more robust than Broad-Breasted White turkeys that dominate the marketplace. Heritage turkeys are generally allowed to range outside and not given antibiotics, but it's best to investigate individual growers and familiarize yourself with their production practices.

NO ANTIBIOTICS: Use of the term "antibiotic free" is considered "unapprovable" by the USDA on any meat products, but the USDA allows producers to label poultry products with the claims "no antibiotics administered" or "raised without antibiotics." These claims imply that the animals have not received any antibiotics during the course of their lifetime.


In addition to markets like WHOLE FOODS, ANDRONICO'S, DRAEGER'S and COSENTINO'S, the following are additional sources for sustainably raised and heritage turkeys.

DIAMONDORGANICS.COM: Online source for wide variety of organic meat products.

DIESTEL TURKEY RANCH: Once of the largest free-range, antibiotic-free turkey producers in the United States; Diestelturkey.com.

HISTORICALTURKEYS.COM: Online source for several heritage turkey varieties and free-range chicken.

LOCALHARVEST.COM: An online source for locally produced organic and sustainably raised turkey and other products.

MARYSTURKEYS.COM: Fresno-based producer of heritage turkeys.

REESETURKEYS.COM: Frank Reese Jr. is one of the pioneers in the modern heritage turkey market. At Good Shepherd Ranch, he raises a number of heritage breeds as well as geese and ducks.

SHELTONS.COM: Producers of organic and free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys.

HERITAGEFOODUSA.COM: Heritage Food USA, an offshoot of Slow Food USA, has been a prime mover behind the interest in heritage turkeys. This site provides background on heritage turkeys and ordering information.

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From the November 24-December 1, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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