United Poultry Concerns November 22, 2006

Turkey article in Minneapolis Star-Tribune - letters needed

This article appeared in the Tues. Nov 21 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (StarTribune.com).

The full article, which includes concerns raised by United Poultry Concerns, with associated images and links can be viewed here. Letters to the editor go to: opinion@startribune.com
 
The article describes the abnormal growth rate of turkeys raised for human consumption. Despite industry boasts of "bigger," "bigger," the article cites scientists' concern that these birds have significant skeletal and physiological infirmities. Their "joints at the legs aren't appropriate" for the amount of weight they're forced to carry. There are cases in which the birds' hearts "literally can't pump blood out to the far reaches of the bird's muscle mass," causing the muscle to be pale and mushy ("soft"). The article notes that "United Poultry Concerns, an animal welfare group, criticizes the industry for what it says are inhumane conditions brought on by the push for larger birds. The group points out that toms are too large to mate naturally - they would crush the hens - and so the industry relies on artificial insemination. . . ."   
 


No more featherweights
Matt McKinney, Star Tribune

Minnesota's turkey industry has been ground zero for a startl-ing display of modern agricultural science.

Today's turkey grows much faster and larger than its ancestors. And it does so more cheaply.

Statistics alone tell the story: The state's turkey farms grew 45 million birds last year, the same number as in 1990. Yet the total weight of that flock was 50 percent more than that of 15 years ago, at 1.2 billion pounds.

That's helped make Minnesota the turkey capital of the world with sales of $540 million annually.

"It is dramatic," said Jim Trites, a former turkey farmer and veterinarian. His early years in turkey farming were guided by the old adage of a pound a week, meaning tom turkeys were ready for slaughter at 20 weeks and 20 pounds. If you got numbers like that back then "you were bragging," Trites said.

Such numbers today would be considered failure. While the hen that will probably appear on your Thanksgiving table will still be around 12 pounds, a tom turkey today grows to 40 pounds in 20 weeks, sometimes more.

What's changed is a dramatically improved understanding of the turkey's genetic code, the map that assigns weight and shape and growth rate to each bird. The turkey industry, which does not use hormones or steroids, has instead exploited the centuries-old science of cross breeding to design heavier turkeys that grow faster.

"It's all through genetic selection that we've been able to get that heavier bird," said Rahn Annis, vice president for the Jennie-O Turkey Store, the world's largest processor of turkey.

That has allowed the state's 600 turkey farms to keep p! ace with year-round demand for turkey products, which are made from toms. The average American eats 16.6 pounds annually of turkey meat, ground turkey, sausage and other products, up 70 percent from 1980.

Genes for growth

The revolution taking place in turkeys is to some extent a mirror of all of agriculture, said Mike Tolbert, president of Jennie-O, based in Willmar, Minn.

"Look at crops," Tolbert said. Yields coming from corn farmers rise every year; soybean farmers reach farther north into Minnesota each year, all because of improved genetics.

There are just two major breeding companies worldwide. Hybrid Turkeys, based in Ontario, Canada, is one. Helen Wojcinski, a research scientist at Hybrid, said her company takes three years to develop a turkey.

"We've got various genetic lines of turkey," she said. "We combine them to meet the customers' needs, for breast meat yield, feed conversion, reproductive traits."

The rush for a larger bird has its limits, she said. The bird's health must be considered, along with its ability to hold its own weight.

Twelve years ago, the company started screening each bird for genes responsible for growth rate, or others for making the bird more durable. Of a flock of 1,000 turkeys, just 10 will become breeders while the rest will go to slaughter.

As a result, the industry has added a pound a year to the finished weight of toms. Wojcinski said that growth rate will continue for the foreseeable future.

'A physiological limit'

That future might rest with people like Kent Reed, associate professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota. He's part of a team of scientists mapping the turkey's genetic structure.

He also cautions against pushing the bird too far, too fast.

"Some of these birds have skeletal problems, the joints at the legs aren't appropriate for that amount of mass. There also are cases where you can! push th e circulatory system so far as well," he said.

Some birds develop a condition in which the heart literally can't pump blood out to the far reaches of the bird's muscle mass. A condition known as pale soft exuditive meat can develop.

"There's going to be a physiological limit," he said.

United Poultry Concerns, an animal welfare group, criticizes the industry for what it says are inhumane conditions brought on by the push for larger birds. The group points out that toms are too large to mate naturally -- they would crush the hens -- and so the industry relies on artificial insemination. Breeders also must watch the bone struccture of their toms to ensure they can stand.

Such concerns have some customers clamoring for smaller turkeys. There's a small but growing revival in heritage turkeys, the native breeds like Narragansett, the Bourbon Red and the Jersey Buff that once dominated the market before the Broad Breasted White Turkey took over.

The conventional turkey farmers say they are sensitive to animal welfare concerns. But they don't agree that a "free range" bird would be happier or healthier. The modern turkey barn protects the animals from disease and predators, said Ted Huisinga, of the Willmar Poultry Co., a hatchery. "The best care is not running outside."

Ultimately, the consumer will decide. There are people who perceive that an organic, naturally raised turkey, is going to taste or be better, he said. "If that's what the perception is, we will raise the turkeys the way they want it."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329 • mckinney@startribune.com

 

 


United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
757-678-7875
FAX: 757-678-5070
www.upc-online.org

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