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Building a Better Bird

Beltsville White Turkey and Other Improvements to American Food

photographers snap pictures of Pumpkin the turkey prior to the Pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey ceremony this year. SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert Whether by DNA manipulation or old-fashioned selective breeding, we engineer our food. Is it time to get over it? Above, photographers snap pictures of "Pumpkin" the turkey prior to the Pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey ceremony this year.

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

As my brother-in-law and I gazed upon the enormous, picture-perfect turkey glistening golden-brown on his cutting board last Thursday, we had the same thought—and blurted it out in near-unison: It looks just like the fake turkey that President George Bush delivered to the troops during that photo-op in Baghdad a few years ago!

Indeed, the big-breasted bird on his kitchen counter was too plump, too perfectly muscled, too marvelous to be true. And as I recalled some of what I’d learned over the years about how the once-wild American turkey came to be the magnificently mutated mass of meat that it is today, I couldn’t help but also think again about the Food and Drug Administration’s pending decision on whether to allow the marketing of foods from gene-altered farm animals.

Turkeys are not made by genetic engineering—not yet, at least. But no one can look at the modern Butterball (or, for that matter, the Amish-market free-range Amazon that my brother-in-law broasted) without facing the fact that the animals we eat today have little in common with their wild predecessors. It’s an argument that proponents of gene-altered food have made repeatedly, and one that is especially difficult to ignore on Thanksgiving: Whether by DNA manipulation or old-fashioned selective breeding, we engineer our food. Get over it.

As I’ve written before, I don’t fully buy it. But to be fair, let’s consider the turkey’s trajectory from sinewy forest fowl to succulent urban uber-bird.
The turkeys of Pilgrim’s pride were bigger than the average avian entrée of the day and so popular for special occasions, but they were small and scrawny by today’s standards. The modern turkey was not born until the 1940s, when scientists in Beltsville, Maryland, used conventional breeding to begat a definitively better bird—one whose feathers were white instead of the traditional camouflage green and brown. That took care of a longstanding aesthetic issue. When turkeys with colored feathers got processed, it turns out, the leftover roots and pigments from those feathers gave the meat a five-o’clock shadow. Understandably, that didn’t sit well with consumers.

The advent of the Beltsville White helped launch a major market for turkey meat, which in turn led to a big push for faster growth and bigger birds. Through a series of intensive breeding efforts that began in earnest in the 1980s, turkeys in the 1990s were achieving weights of about 35 pounds in as little as 20 weeks—a 40 percent improvement in heft compared to a decade earlier. Of course, that’s a trend we’ve seen in humans, too. But in this case we’re not talking about an obesity epidemic. The new birds have extremely efficient metabolisms that quickly convert feed into meat and not fat.

Today, more than a quarter of a turkey’s body weight is muscle, and most of that is breast, to satisfy U.S. consumers’ preference for white meat. The bones are oriented and muscled in ways that allow the birds to remain upright despite their teetering, cantilevered, Dolly Parton-ish proportions.

There was a price to pay, of course—for the turkey, that is. The birds’ internal organs are crammed together in what little space remains in the body cavity, which may help explain why the lifespan of a modern turkey is a fraction of what it used to be, even if it is lucky enough to get a Sarah Palin pardon. And sex is all but physically impossible, which is why virtually every turkey raised in this country today is conceived by means of artificial insemination. (I once met, in Beltsville, the guy whose job it was to get many of the semen samples used in this process. He did so by hand, using a technique that he referred to as “abdominal massage.” Suffice it to say that he did not have to call to the turkeys when he walked into a pen.)

My point is that this massive reengineering of the turkey by old-fashioned breeding is clearly more substantive than any of the changes that we might expect to occur through the insertion of a mere gene or two into a few members of the modern barnyard menagerie, such as the Aqua Bounty farmed salmon (gene-altered to make them grow faster) or the Canadian Enviropigs (gene-altered to make their manure more environmental friendly). So it is understandable, perhaps, that the FDA has taken a stance favoring the marketing of milk and meat from gene-altered animals, at least once they have passed some basic tests for safety.

The agency accepted public comments on the issue until just before Thanksgiving (virtually all of which, visible here, were negative, though for the most part not carefully reasoned), and a final decision is expected soon.

As the agency digests consumer sentiments and weighs them against the economic interests anxious to get their altered animals to market, let me just remind regulators and other readers of a few facts that should temper any decision to commercialize these critters too quickly.

  1. Breeding happens slowly. Genetic combinations that result from sexual recombination and that don’t work well tend to get weeded out over time and are unlikely to get to a consumer’s mouth. That safety margin can be compromised when genes are crammed into massive numbers of creatures that are then sent on the fast-track to grocery shelves.
  2. Genes can behave differently in foreign species than they do in their home turf. An experiment a few years ago involved the transfer of an ordinary gene from a bean into a pea plant. In the bean, the gene coded for the production of an ordinary, non-allergenic protein. In the foreign genomic environment of the pea plant, however, the innocuous bean protein attracted a coating of other molecules that made the protein potentially dangerous to people with certain food allergies. Such unexpected results in cross-species recombinant DNA experiments undermine the idea that genetic engineering is just like regular breeding but more precise.
  3. Eating is intimate. People have emotional relationships to food. Even if the health risks to consumers and the animals themselves are low, producers and regulators would be wise to open the new agricultural approach to some degree of public inspection as a way of fostering all-important consumer trust. In other words, make the approval process more transparent than what the FDA has proposed so far.
  4. Remember our far-flung food importers. Even if we in the United States decide we are okay with food from engineered animals, our trading partners around the world may not be. In fact, history has shown many of them to be more than a little queasy on this topic. Whatever cost savings may be had from a faster-growing salmon must be weighed against the potential losses in confidence and, ultimately, sales, caused by our move into what others might see as the realm of phony food.

There is an important future for engineered animals as sources of food, medicines, plastics, high-tech fibers and perhaps even organs for transplantation into people—all applications researchers are now pursuing in an array of U.S. labs. But if companies insist on working through an FDA approval process that, as currently proposed, would allow essential details to be kept under wraps forever as “confidential business information,” then they shouldn’t be surprised if they are lambasted as, well, turkeys.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

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