Years of breeding lead to some fat turkeys this year

By Paul Elias The Associated Press
Thursday November 22, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Pity the Thanksgiving turkey, selectively bred so fat for so long that simply walking can be a problem and sex is no longer possible. 

For at least 50 years, farmers have single-mindedly plucked the fattest and fastest growing turkeys from their flock and bred them together to yield the most sumptuous breast meat. The result: this year most of the 267 million turkeys that will be commercially sold in the U.S. have breasts so large that the males are physically unable to mate. 

Instead, fat female turkeys are artificially inseminated by man. 

The commercial turkey industry is unapologetic. Turkey breeders say they’re giving us what we want for Thanksgiving. 

“The U.S. consumer wants white meat,” said Sherrie Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman with the National Turkey Federation in Washington D.C. “And it goes far beyond Thanksgiving. The sandwich you ordered at lunch is white meat.” 

Breeders are able to grow turkeys bigger and faster than ever through a vitamin-laden diet and technological improvements in genetics. 

The turkeys aren’t genetically engineered, Rosenblatt said. In laboratories and in the field, breeders weed out turkeys with unwanted genes while funneling coveted ones into mass production. Female turkeys take 14 weeks to grow to 15 pounds while male turkeys — “toms” — take 18 weeks to plump to 35 pounds. 

Much of the genetic breeding process, though, is still done by sight. Workers watch turkeys walk down and aisle and cull the lame and weak. 

“They pick the animals that eat the most before they are satisfied,” said Joy Mench, a University of California, Davis professor who specializes in poultry. 

White-feathered turkeys are also selected for breeding while their darker colored relatives are culled from the flock. Dark-feathered turkeys leave unsightly blemishes on the skin. 

Not all livestock experts appreciate the lengths the turkey industry has gone to provide the nation with an abundance of white meat. 

“They’ve bred animals that grow so fat and fast that their hearts and lungs can’t support the growth,” said Gene Bauston, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, which aims to prevent farm animal cruelty and promotes a vegan diet. “The birds are so heavy that their feet and legs can’t support their bodies.” 

Bauston said he fears industry research will lead to even more efficiently grown fat turkeys, all with nearly identical genes. 

“As a result, the odds increase that the turkeys will be wiped out by a single disease or virus,” Bauston said. 

Bauston said he will dine on “tofurkey,” a turkey-shaped slab of tofu, and vegetables on Thursday.