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Turkeys Now Wobble While They Gobble Birds Are Engineered Into Obesity Until They No Longer Can Stand Up

Mon., Nov. 20, 1995

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

It is a big bird, perhaps 30 pounds. But it’s too big for its spindly legs, which have collapsed. No. 146-I no longer can support the weight of its 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 its wings. The bird squats in sawdust in a dimly lighted room, head bent to the floor, while the other turkeys murmur musically around it.

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 the turkey.

Few people know, for instance, that 90 percent 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 now are mere novelties kept genetically alive by poultry fanciers who award one another 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 re-create a creature to fit their culture, this is just common knowledge.

Turkey No. 146-I is one of 1,000 birds living 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 birds, 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-to-1.

“Industry is too shortsighted,” says Dr. Karl Nestor, resident poultry geneticist at the research farm.

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

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

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

In 1970, 15 percent 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 alike genetically 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.

But 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.

By the 1950s, turkeys were getting so big that the birds were having problems mating, says 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. 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 percent of the market. The three kings of avian art are:

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

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

Hybrid Turkeys, owned by British Petroleum until last year and now owned by its managers.

The secrets of their success lie in the small flocks of pedigreed turkeys; each turkey holds 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.

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

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

Nestor and assistant John Anderson enter a room in a long, low building. A white cloud of 250 male turkeys swirls along the sawdust-covered floor away from the opening door.

Only one turkey still lingers, its legs now confoundingly useless.

Anderson scoops up the turkey and sets it outside the room on a cement floor. Turkey No. 146-I, bred with too much flesh and too little bone, will have to be destroyed.

“They went too far,” Anderson says later, almost apologetically. “The white meat is where the money is. But the skeleton didn’t keep up.”

Graphic: Birds of a feather

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