Americans gobble up a lot of turkey: 267 million turkeys are sold in the United States each year [source: Elias]. Considering all those turkeys, it may surprise you to hear that there's one that dominates the competition at the supermarket: the broad-breasted white turkey. Most Americans have never eaten another kind. The turkeys look just like their name suggests: They're bred for big breasts, the bigger the better, and their pure white feathers (pop-up timer not present at birth). With their twin peaks and fair hair, they're like the Anna Nicole Smith of poultry. But turkeys weren't always like this. It wasn't until the 1950s that turkey farmer George Nicholas gave the birds a Hollywood makeover and transformed turkey farming into a multimillion-dollar business.
In the 1930s, families began asking for small turkeys, little enough to feed smaller families and fit easily into refrigerators and ovens. They wanted more white meat and no dark pin feathers (back then, cooks needed to clean and dress birds in preparation for roasting -- steps that are now done before we buy our birds). By the end of World War II, selective breeding techniques gave customers what they wanted.
Selective breeding, also called artificial selection, isn't the same as genetic modification (GM), although the terms are often used interchangeably. They're both used to alter the genes of an organism (animal, plant or bacteria). Genetic modification is a high-tech way to change the DNA pattern in an organism -- today it's used commonly in cotton, corn, soy and canola production. With GM techniques, genes from any organism are crossed to create something new. Hypothetically, with GM you could crossbreed cotton and pigs.
With selective breeding, two members of the same species are bred to exploit desirable dominant characteristics, which they pass along to their offspring. Cows that produce the most milk may be selected to breed and pass that trait to offspring, thereby increasing milk yields of future generations. Two types of corn could be crossbred to produce a high-yield hybrid. In the case of turkeys, quick-growing birds with bigger breasts and white feathers were selected to produce broad-breasted whites.
Let's look into the life of the broad-breasted white turkeys and their distant cousins, the once nearly extinct heritage birds.
Turkey Talk: Broad-breasted Whites vs. Heritage Turkeys
Turkeys raised in today's factory farms are unrecognizable from the wild birds Franklin knew. Industry-bred birds have unusually large breasts, so disproportionate with the rest of their bodies that they often have trouble standing, walking and mating -- these turkeys rely on artificial insemination for reproduction. They begin life hatched in incubators, have their upper beaks and toenails clipped and spend their days and nights eating fortified corn in a barn full of hundreds of fellow turkeys. Their limited family tree has bred them to be dim-witted and disease-prone; they're given antibiotics to prevent a variety of ailments. Industry turkeys are abnormally fast growing, and by the time they're 12 weeks old, they're shipped off to the slaughterhouse.
There is an alternative to factory breeding: heritage turkeys, which were nearly extinct as recently as the end of the 20th century. But in the 2006 U.S. turkey census, there were about 8,800 heritage turkeys -- a big jump from the 1,300 heritage turkeys in 1997 [source: Mapes]. They're making a comeback with the help of small enthusiast groups and the Slow Food movement, and you can buy them in some specialty markets around the country. Slow Food aficionados value knowing where the food they eat comes from, how it's raised, how it tastes and how it's linked to the community and the environment. And they'll tell you a heritage bird isn't in the same league as the frozen, bowling-ball shaped turkey in your local market's freezer. These birds have rich, gamey meat that doesn't need gravy to add flavor.
The American Poultry Association lists less than a dozen heritage turkey breeds that meet its Standard of Perfection, including the standard bronze, Beltsville small white, black, Bourbon red, Jersey buff, Narragansett, royal palm, slate, white Holland and white midget.
To be considered a heritage variety, the turkey needs to meet three criteria. First, it needs to mate naturally, and its genetic legacy must also be bred naturally. Second, it must live a long and productive life outdoors, which means it must be fit and self-reliant enough to endure whatever the environment throws its way. Unlike industry-bred birds, heritage turkeys can roost, run and fly. Hens (female turkeys) typically live for five to seven years while toms (male turkeys) live about three to five years [source: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy]. And lastly, it should grow at a slow rate. While broad-breasted white turkeys are bred for their ability to mature quickly, heritage turkeys are allowed to take their time -- the development of healthy skeletons, organs and muscles can take up to 28 weeks [source: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy].
But most Americans will be sticking to the easy-to-find broad-breasted white. So when you give thanks over your turkey this Thanksgiving, remember to thank selective breeding for the bounty of white meat of which you are about to partake.
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More Great Links
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- "Bird Words: Translating the Label." Washington Post. 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/14/AR2006111400284.html
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- Elias, Paul. "Building a Better Turkey Through Biotech." LiveScience. 2004. http://www.livescience.com/animals/biotech_turkey_041124.html
- Hack, Tobin. "What's the difference between genetic engineering and selective breeding?" Plenty Magazine. 2008. http://www.plentymag.com/ask/2008/10/whats_the_difference_between_g.php
- Kliman, Todd, Cynthia Hacinli, and Ann Limpert. "Are Heritage Turkeys Worth the Money?" Washingtonian. 2006. http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/bestbites/1914.html
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- "Selective Breeding." Biology Online. http://www.biology-online.org/2/12_selective_breeding.htm
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- Zwillich, Todd. "No Labels for Genetically Engineered Food." WebMD. 2008. http://www.webmd.com/news/20080918/no-labels-for-genetically-engineered_food