Is turkey going way of the dinosaur? Government studies why more than 20% of eggs don't hatch

November 26, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Suppose your grocery store informed you that turkeys were not available for Thanksgiving. A joke, right? Well, maybe not.

The Agriculture Department has been known in the past to sour the holiday a bit -- with, say, a warning about turkey salmonella.

But last week's announcement was a doozy.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced that of the 430 million turkey eggs laid last year, 100 million had failed to hatch.

Someday, Glickman hinted darkly, Americans might have no choice but to serve some other entree at the holiday feast.

"This is a major concern for the turkey industry," he said, "and for the many Americans who look forward to turkey each year at their Thanksgiving table."

This season, holiday diners can rest easy and enjoy their turkeys. The problem is not an immediate threat.

But Glickman is taking no chances. Jittery because the percentage of turkey eggs that do not hatch has risen steadily since 1980, he has ordered his department's research lab to study the problem and try to avert a potential crisis that threatens an American tradition.

Researchers at the Beltsville facility, where more than 100 turkeys are housed and studied, had already been trying to determine why the "hatchability" of turkey eggs is declining.

In 1980, about 85 percent of eggs hatched. That has fallen below 80 percent, and it's still dropping.

Researchers do have some idea of why there are so many bad eggs. One culprit: our national hunger for big birds.

Many Americans love meaty turkeys, and the processors of turkey pastrami, ground turkey and other turkey products have found it easier and more profitable to use larger birds.

Mindful of such demand, breeders over the years have eliminated many smaller birds through genetic selection.

Many "toms" (males in the turkey lexicon) now top the scales at 70 pounds, compared with about 40 pounds in 1980.

For a variety of reasons, experts say, both big hens and big toms tend to be less effective breeders.

"Larger birds just have more problems," said Murray R. Bakst, a research physiologist at the Beltsville lab and the government's only expert on the hatchability of turkey eggs. "But you want them because there's more meat on the bone."

Another problem is that many breeders store eggs in extremely low temperatures to postpone development. That allows them to time the hatchings so that thousands of turkeys will hatch simultaneously and big shipments can be moved.

But as this process has become more popular, researchers have recognized that the chill tends to kill off cells and to cause some eggs not to hatch. In addition to seeking new methods to boost fertility, researchers are exploring ways to prevent the death of embryos.

"With a quarter of your eggs not hatching, that's a waste," Bakst said. "It's undesirable."

A turkey shortage could hit the American population hard, especially around this time. The National Turkey Federation boasts that 91 percent of Americans consume turkey at Thanksgiving.

Over this holiday, 45 million turkeys are eaten. In 1997, the average American ate nearly 18 pounds of turkey meat.

The American appetite for turkey is certainly on the minds of the Agriculture Department's Germplasm and Gamete Physiology Laboratory in Beltsville. The name of the lab means, in short, that researchers there study sex among turkeys.

All turkey breeding is now done by artificial insemination, thanks to a process the lab helped create in 1980 that allows turkey sperm to be stored for up to 12 hours.

The widely used process led to the creation of "stud" farms, facilities that house only male turkeys and have made the breeding process more efficient.

Bakst, one of three experts who lead the lab, grew up far from the farm -- in the middle of the Bronx. He saw his first live poultry when a chicken truck overturned in front of his urban home and birds wandered aimlessly through the neighborhood.

He remembers thinking, "Those aren't pigeons."

Bakst said he's heard all of the jokes about being the poultry king, the turkey boss, the man who might one day save Thanksgiving.

But tonight, he just wants to be the cook. He hopes his own trademark recipe, which involves tucking seasonings such as garlic and roasted peppercorn into folds in the meat, will please the family.

"I make a wicked turkey," he said.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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