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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 10:30 GMT
How turkey became a fast food

By Megan Lane and Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Time was when turkey was rare; a seasonal treat. These days you are as likely to find it bulking out briny hot dogs or pet food, as come across it at Christmas lunch.

The grisly fate of the 160,000 turkeys gassed at a Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk this week is the latest regrettable twist in the history of the bird.

Even its name derives from a cock up - 16th Century Europeans confused the bird with the guinea fowl, which had recently been introduced to Europe by the Turkish.

By the 19th Century, however, turkey had an esteemed culinary status in the UK, when it was beloved of the upper and middle classes as a quality food, says food historian Ivan Day.

The Royle Family celebrates the festive season
Not just for Christmas
Fast-forward a century or so, and it has become as unremarkable as beans on toast, and every bit as cheap.

From pre-prepared oven-ready steaks to frozen breaded drumsticks, turkey is a staple of many a modern diet. In its mechanically-recovered form, it even crops up in such culinary delights as gravy powder, pet food, diet chicken curry and tinned mini hot dogs.

A popular variety of novelty luncheon sausage uses turkey to render the face of a children's cartoon character.

Today, almost half the flesh consumed in the UK is poultry, and turkey accounts for 6% of the meat market as a whole. UK breeders reared more than 17 million turkeys for our consumption last year.

In its unprocessed state, turkey was the only meat to make it onto an influential list of 14 "superfoods" to eat for health and vitality (along with blueberries, broccoli and walnuts). And with meat high in protein and low in fat, it's a favourite with followers of the Atkins, Zone, GI and South Beach diets.

However, the Turkey Twizzler, a legend in its own lunchtime after it became the focus of a campaign to buck up school nutrition standards, is no more. The outcry was too much and even Bernard Matthews, whose company made the product, admitted its "nutritional value wasn't fantastic".

Meet the ancestors

Such economies come at a price, though. Today's top-heavy variety of factory farmed turkey - with its overdeveloped breasts bred for more lean meat - would struggle to recognise its native American forbears.

Turkeys on a farm
Whole birds +2.3% 29m
Mixed cuts +177% 4m
Steaks +173% 7m
Mince +11.8 8m
Breasts -7.3% 54m
Mini-fillets -4.3% 7m
Diced -4.9% 11.5m
British Poultry Council figures

The first turkeys brought back to Europe from North America in the early 16th Century were "scrawnier, with browner, gamier flesh" than today's, says Mr Day. Farmers in East Anglia set to work on cross-breeding it, and some time later exported the plumper result back across the Atlantic.

By the 19th Century, turkey had become the Christmas dinner of choice and a not uncommon fixture on grand country house menus. Yet the privations of two world wars meant that by the mid-20th Century it, along with chicken, was in seriously short supply.

But turkey had some important factors in its favour, says Mr Day. Easy to rear, particularly, when compared to goose, indoors; cheap to feed and able to "put on a fantastic amount of weight quickly", turkey lent itself well to the emerging techniques of factory farming.

Step forward Bernard Matthews, the prime mover in democratising this previously elitist food.

"Everyone remembers his "bootiful" ads. He brought turkey to a wider audience, not just the Christmas market," says Richard Griffiths, of the British Poultry Council.

Bernard Matthews presents Cherie Blair with a turkey
Bernard Matthews talking turkey
Says Ivan Day: "Turkeys became the protein factories of the 1960s and 70s. Breeders tried to develop new strains to put on more breast meat."

Matthews' sealed his place in every harassed housewife's heart with the launch of his first breaded product - Crispy Crumb Turkey Steaks - in 1982. Today, 2.7 million of the eight million turkeys devoured at Christmas in the UK are from his farms; other products include "turkey ham" for sandwiches, novelty dinosaur-shaped nuggets and, at the posher end of the scale, marinated fillets.

But blazing a trail before Mr Matthews was US food scientist Robert Baker, who transformed the way we eat poultry by devising products that fed the post-World War II demand for convenience food (and used parts of birds that otherwise would go to waste). He patented his chicken nugget recipe in the 1950s, and invented the aforementioned "turkey ham". Today, 40% of poultry sales involve processed meat.

Staple ingredient

Yet to food writer Joanna Blythman, turkey's triumph tells a wider, worrying story about the UK public's attitude to food.

Demand for free-range is on the up
"Turkey is a kind of iconic food and symbolic of what's gone wrong with British food production," says Ms Blythman, author of Bad Food Britain: How A Nation Ruined Its Appetite.

"It's easy to prepare, very low grade, intensively farmed food and very cheap. It has almost no taste without the additives they put in. The turkeys that provide this meat have hugely overdeveloped breasts and are a travesty of what a turkey should be."

There are signs, however, of more traditional turkey trends resurfacing. Sales of organic, free-range birds have rocketed, and in the US, so-called Heritage Turkeys - tastier, traditional breeds - are making a comeback.

But these birds are almost exclusively reared for the festive season, be it Christmas or Thanksgiving. Those eaten year-round are, by and large, factory-farmed turkeys. While sales of UK-reared turkeys are down from the early 1990s peak of 30m a year, Mr Griffiths says this is because of an increase in imported turkey meat - also likely to be intensively-reared - rather than a drop in consumption.

Previous bird flu scares haven't dented poultry sales in this country. Now that H5N1 has come to these shores, only time will tell how sales of this now staple ingredient will hold up.

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