November 24, 2003
About a Turkey

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, waiting for the main attraction to be brought in on a platter, take a moment to think about where it came from and how it found its way to your table. After all, your turkey is not the same wily, energetic, tasty bird that struck our ancestors as the perfect centerpiece for an American holiday.

Most Americans know that the turkey is a native game bird, and that Benjamin Franklin thought it would have been a better national symbol than the bald eagle. For good reason: in the wild, Meleagris gallopavo is a fast runner and a notoriously difficult prize for hunters. Even after they were domesticated, turkeys remained spirited, traditionally spending the bulk of their lives outdoors, exploring, climbing trees, socializing and, of course, breeding.

Now consider the bird that will soon be on your plate. It probably hatched in an incubator on a huge farm, most likely in the Midwest or the South. Its life went downhill from there. A few days after hatching in the first of many unnatural if not necessarily painful indignities it had its upper beak and toenails snipped off. A turkey is normally a very discriminating eater (left to its own devices, it will search out the exact food it wants to eat). In order to fatten it up quickly, farmers clip the beak, transforming it into a kind of shovel. With its altered beak, it can no longer pick and choose what it will eat. Instead, it will do nothing but gorge on the highly fortified corn-based mash that it is offered, even though that is far removed from the varied diet of insects, grass and seeds turkeys prefer. And the toenails? They're removed so that they won't do harm later on: in the crowded conditions of industrial production, mature turkeys are prone to picking at the feathers of their neighbors and even cannibalizing them.

After their beaks are clipped, mass- produced turkeys spend the first three weeks of their lives confined with hundreds of other birds in what is known as a brooder, a heated room where they are kept warm, dry and safe from disease and predators. The next rite of passage comes in the fourth week, when turkeys reach puberty and grow feathers. For centuries, it was at this point that a domesticated turkey would move outdoors for the rest of its life.

But with the arrival of factory turkey farming in the 1960's, all that changed. Factory-farm turkeys don't even see the outdoors. Instead, as many as 10,000 turkeys that hatched at the same time are herded from brooders into a giant barn. These barns generally are windowless, but are illuminated by bright lights 24 hours a day, keeping the turkeys awake and eating.

These turkey are destined to spend their lives not on grass but on wood shavings, laid down to absorb the overwhelming amount of waste that the flock produces. Still, the ammonia fumes rising from the floor are enough to burn the eyes, even at those operations where the top level of the shavings is occasionally scraped away during the flock's time in the barn.

Not only do these turkeys have no room to move around in the barn, they don't have any way to indulge their instinct to roost (clutching onto something with their claws when they sleep). Instead, the turkeys are forced to rest in an unnatural position analogous to what sleeping sitting up is for humans.

Not only are the turkeys in the barn all the same age, they and the roughly 270 million turkeys raised on factory farms each year are all the same variety, the appropriately named Broad Breasted White. Every bit of natural instinct and intelligence has been bred out of these turkeys, so much so that they are famously stupid (to the point where farmers joke they'll drown themselves by looking up at the rain). Broad Breasted Whites have been developed for a single trait at the expense of all others: producing disproportionately large amounts of white meat in as little time as possible.

Industrial turkeys pay a high price for the desire of producers and consumers for lots of white breast meat. By their eighth week, these turkeys are severely overweight. Their breasts are so large that they are unable to walk or even have sex. (All industrial turkeys today are the product of artificial insemination.)

Needless to say, no Broad Breasted White could hope to survive in nature. These turkeys' immune systems are weak from the start, and to prevent even the mildest pathogen from killing them, farmers add large amounts of antibiotics to their feed. The antibiotics also help the turkeys grow faster and prevent ailments like diabetes, respiratory problems, heart disease and joint pains that result from an unvaried diet and lack of exercise. Because the health of these turkeys is so delicate, the few humans who come in contact with them generally wear masks for fear of infecting them.

On non-industrial farms, it takes turkeys 24 weeks to arrive at slaughter weight, about 15 pounds for a hen and 24 pounds for a tom. Industrial turkeys, however, need half that time. By 12 to 14 weeks, the whole flock is ready for the slaughterhouse. Once slaughtered, the turkeys have to suffer one more indignity before arriving in your grocer's meat case. Because of their monotonous diet, their flesh is so bland that processors inject them with saline solution and vegetable oils, improving "mouthfeel" while at the same time increasing shelf life and adding weight.

Anyone who cooks knows that salt alone won't do the trick. Once, simply sticking a turkey in the oven for a few hours was enough. Today, chefs have to go to heroic lengths to try to counteract the turkey's cracker-like dryness and lack of flavor. Cooks must brine, marinate, deep fry, and hide the taste with maple syrup, herbs, spices, butter and olive oil. It's no surprise that side dishes have moved to the center of the Thanksgiving menu.

Even so, 45 million turkeys will be sold this Thanksgiving, so turkey producers aren't doing badly for themselves. But could they be sowing the seeds of their own misfortune? By relying solely on a single strain of the Broad Breasted White, and producing it in huge vertically integrated companies that control every aspect of production, entire flocks and even the species itself is one novel pathogen away from being wiped off the American dinner table. The future of the turkey as we know it rests on only one genetic strain. And the fewer genetic strains of an animal that exist, the less chance that the genes necessary to resist a lethal pathogen are present.

It's for this reason that maintaining genetic diversity within any species is crucial to a secure and sustainable food supply. Sadly for the turkey and for us, the rise of the Broad Breasted White means that dozens of other turkey varieties, including the Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Jersey Buff, have been pushed to the brink of extinction because there is no longer a market for them.

What to do? One solution is to bypass Broad Breasted Whites altogether. A few nonprofit groups including my own, Slow Food U.S.A., and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are working with independent family farms to ensure that a handful of older, pre-industrial turkey varieties, known as heritage breeds, are still being grown. These varieties are slowly gaining recognition for their dark, rich and succulent meat. (My group, which encourages the preservation of artisanal foods, sells turkeys on behalf of these farmers, but we don't profit from the transactions.)

While it might be too late to get your hands on a heritage bird this year, there are some other options available to consumers who would like a turkey raised in a more humane fashion, even if it is a Broad Breasted White. Farmers' markets often have meat purveyors who raise their turkeys the way they should be, free ranging and outdoors.

At the market, you can often meet the person who grew your turkey and ask about how it was raised. Many independent butcher shops have developed relationships with local farmers who deliver fresh turkeys, especially for special occasions like Thanksgiving. A few environmentally conscious supermarkets get their turkeys from small family farms.

But as you shop, you need to look for more than just labels like "organic," "free range" and "naturally raised." They have been co-opted by big business and are no guarantee of a healthier and more humanely raised bird.

The key word to keep in mind is "traceability." If the person behind the counter where you buy your turkey can name the farm or farmer who raised it, you are taking a step in the right direction. You'll help give turkeys a better life. You'll be kinder to the environment. And you might even wind up with a turkey that tastes, well, like a turkey.

Patrick Martins is director of Slow Food U.S.A.