turkey on farm at sunset

Slow Food and the Heritage Turkey ...

In 1997 there were only 6 Narragansett turkeys.

In 2001 Slow Food noticed. Today there are nearly 700 Narragansetts.

How did this happen?

The American Poultry Association (APA) has a mission statement: "To promote and protect the standard-bred poultry industry in all its phases." They publish the "Standard of Perfection" and they encourage pure breeding.

The APA is to poultry what the American Kennel Club is to dog shows. But the APA had a problem. There were fewer and fewer purebred turkeys in existence.

Fast Food to the Rescue

Before all of the American pure bred turkeys became extinct, the fast food industry came to the rescue - inadvertently - by upsetting the sensibilities of the Italians.

In 1986, McDonalds opened a restaurant on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Italy. How could a fast food restaurant open in the heart of the capital city of Italy - a country know for it's wonderful tradition of food? There were protests and opposition.

One Italian, Carlo Petrini, decided the best approach to this indignity was to embrace the opposite of fast food. He started the movement which became known as "Slow Food."

The Beginning

Slow Food supports those things which fast food isn't. It supports food that is local, unique, slow and leisurely.

When consumers buy locally grown or raised food, they support local farmers and preserve farmland. They create demand for products which are fresher and which are often raised for taste rather an ability to conform to industrial processing standards - to store and ship well. Local products are of known origin, providing the benefit of traceability.

Supporting unique foods preserves alternative gene lines, provides choice and variety in flavors.

Slow Food launched the "Ark of Taste." This is a list of foods that are local and unique and were in danger of disappearing with homogenization and vertical integration taking place in the food industry.

In terms of turkeys, it was the Broad Breasted White that was on the verge of driving all of its predecessors to extinction.

In 2001, four breeds or varieties of heritage turkeys boarded Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste: The Bourbon Red, the Narragansett, the Jersey Buff and the Standard Bronze. Just being on this list raised awareness of these magnificent birds, but more was needed.

The Turkey Presidium

In 2002, a turkey presidium was organized by Slow Food USA.

This presidium took the form of a network of hatcheries which were persuaded to produced the eggs; farmers who were subsidized, encouraged, and organized to raise the birds; and consumers both private individuals and restaurateurs who were organized to place orders for the meat.

Slow Food had partnered with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) on this heritage turkey project and eventually transferred management and development to the ALBC.

Heritage Food USA

Heritage Food USA was set up to buy, process, and sell heritage turkeys. In June 2004 Heritage Food USA became an independent company.

Studies by the ALBC in 2003 showed that while there were more heritage turkeys than ever, there were fewer breeders, only 17 remained of the original 25 counted in the 1997 survey.

Today there is a juggling act going on with heritage turkeys. Enough must be raised for consumers who want them, but not so many that there is a glut.

In 2005, Heritage Food USA had 2,000 turkeys that they thought were sold, only to be faced with two major purchasers who backed out of their deals.

The market for heritage turkeys is still finding its balance.

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