No poultry matter

Israel now faces an 'unprecedented crisis' in the turkey industry.

turkeys 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
turkeys 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In Dubi Lang's and Yudke Friedman's ideal world, every red-blooded Israeli would be obsessed with breasts. Turkey breasts, that is. Lang and Friedman are the chief economist and the chief veterinarian, respectively, for Ramit, part of the conglomerate that effectively controls 80 percent of the poultry market in Israel. And while the situation at Ramit isn't nearly as bad, for example, as it is at Off Ha'emek - the chicken slaughterhouse in Galilee that has made headlines in recent days for teetering on the brink of collapse thanks to millions of shekels in debts that the faltering business can't repay - they aren't encouraging, either. The turkey industry in general, according to Ramit CEO Boaz Shkedy, is facing "an unprecedented crisis." The trouble is a combination of the global recession and the local factors that make the Israeli market unique. For years, Israel has led the world in per-capita consumption of turkey meat. The contest hasn't even been close. Whereas Israelis consume an average of more than 20 kg. of turkey meat per year, the next-highest consumers, Americans, eat just under 8 kg. per person. The same goes for turkey as a percentage of poultry consumed: Here, the figure is more than 20 percent, while in the US that figure stands at roughly 15%, and in Europe it is only about 5%. That the US would rank so high is not surprising, given that North America is the turkey's place of origin. The custom of serving a whole turkey for Thanksgiving (and, for some, on Christmas as well) also accounts for a significant amount of annual sales. No other country or region can match that demand. So it is surprising that Israel outranks America, given that it is all but free of those winter holiday turkey-eating customs (except, of course, for the small number of American immigrants who preserve their Thanksgiving culinary tradition with special orders for whole turkeys) and the bird had to be imported to, well, take off here. The explanation for the enigma is manifold. A dearth of grazing land relegates cattle raising to just a small business; the majority of beef consumed is raised and slaughtered overseas, mostly in South America. Fish is commonly consumed, but not as much as meat, by weight. And since pork consumption is extremely low in this Jewish and Muslim country, poultry dominates the meat-eater's chart. There's something else, though, that makes our consumption of turkey meat peculiar: We eat the dark meat. Whereas elsewhere the part of the turkey most likely to find its way to the plate is the breast, here it is the fattier red meat portions that are most often consumed. It is also "hidden," in the sense that it appears not as steaks or as strips, like chicken, but primarily as deli meat or as shwarma. The turkey business has soared here, then, thanks to pastrami sandwiches and the ubiquitous shwarma stands that dot every bus station and busy street. "We eat turkey all the time, not just around holidays, but we're also one of the few places in the world where we eat turkey in pieces," Friedman explains. "Because we eat the dark meat to such a high degree, there is less of a premium on the white meat of the breast - which is why we export so much of the breasts. Generally speaking, we export the breasts to Europe. [Israel exported 3,000 tons of turkey breast meat to the EU in 2005.] So, now there is a crisis because the global economic downturn means less exporting." "And when the export falls, the price of breast meat domestically falls, because there's more supply in the market. So the economic damage comes in both directions," adds Lang. SO, SINCE the Israeli market relies overwhelmingly on the red-meat parts of the bird, there is now too much "white" turkey meat in the domestic market. This drop in demand from Europe hits especially hard, too, because breast meat makes up the largest portion of the weight of turkey products that are consumed. And those turkey breasts are extra large. "Because we don't put a whole bird in the oven, our turkeys are larger than the average American turkey," Friedman explains. Turkeys have been bred to be so big that the males - some as massive as 30 kilos, Friedman says - can no longer mate successfully, and fertilization must be done by artificial insemination. "In the wild," the veterinarian notes, "male turkeys only grow to about 5 kilos. Here they are slaughtered at 17 kilos and beyond, well into the 20-kilo range." That time is quickly approaching for some 7,500 birds at David Hilman's farm in Ein Irron, where he has been raising turkeys since 1993. At 16 weeks, the birds weigh about 17 kg each. Adding about a kilo a week, they're close to the weight of 18-20 kilos they'll reach before being sent to slaughter for a glatt kosher food company. Ironically situated between a cemetery and the Nirvana plant nursery, Hilman's turkeys congregate in their enclosure in a field of blossoming peach trees. He comes to check on them several times a day, making sure they're getting enough food and water to keep growing apace. Dressed in a white full-body jumpsuit and rubber boots, Hilman enters the enclosure and is greeted with a raucous round of "singing" from the birds. "Gobble, gobble" doesn't do justice to the calls, which are more of an exuberant "gerugadurgle-durgle-durgle!" While the serenade is nice, Hilman's focus is on checking the turkeys for signs of illness or injury. "They'll fight each other," he says. "They're cannibals, just like us!" Hilman is counting on his diligence, and his luck, seeing him through this uncertain period. He has already had the good fortune that, when bird flu struck flocks here three years ago, his farm was outside the infection radius. That was just one of two blows that smacked the poultry industry in 2006, with the bird flu outbreak costing the poultry industry more than NIS 10 million in losses due to forced culls. ("Actually, we were very fortunate to have gotten hold of that situation pretty quickly," Lang says.) There was also a final decision in the High Court of Justice to enforce a ban on force-feeding geese, shutting down a NIS 150 million foie gras industry that was the third-largest in the world. Israeli attempts to establish markets for more exotic birds, such as ostrich and quail, have met with only limited success, so the turkey is not alone in facing difficulties. More to the point, the broiler chicken continues to pull ahead as the undisputed poultry king, "and it's like that all over the world," Friedman says. So what can turkey farmers do to ensure their product's survival? The Egg and Poultry Board is betting on better marketing, while farmers are aiming for greater efficiency. TURKEY BREAST is hailed by health professionals because it is very low in sodium, fat and cholesterol, and high in protein. But as "chicken wars" in the supermarkets drive down prices for broilers, and as eating habits move away from frozen chicken and toward fresh chickens and prepared chicken products, fresh turkey meat is being overshadowed. There is also no long-standing tradition like chicken soup and chicken schnitzel to make turkey the staple that chicken is. "Turkey's nutritional benefits are widely acknowledged, but we need to emphasize that it can be as good to cook with as chicken. To that end, we are now distributing pamphlets with recipes and serving suggestions," says Egg and Poultry Board spokeswoman Ruthy Pugatch. "Even though turkey meat is consumed at a very high rate in Israel, it still suffers from certain stigmas that we are working to overcome. Until now we have counted on shwarma and exports, but now we realize that we need to develop a broader market than just pastramis and sausages." Farmers like Hilman, who earn roughly half a shekel for every kilo their turkeys weigh, are looking to maximize their return and minimize their costs. Automated feeding apparatuses keep Hilman's birds fed and watered. He can monitor their growth simply by pressing a button on a panel attached to a massive plate under the four-dunam (one acre) enclosure; he can tell by the weight whether the birds are developing apace, and adjust their food and water accordingly. "It's quite advanced," says Lang, who has been working with Hilman for years. "And this farm is actually considered outdated by current standards. Modern facilities are much bigger and much, much more hi-tech." Technology's most significant application is in the feed supplied to farmers. Firstly, it has become so nutritious that birds grow much faster now than they used to. When Friedman made aliya from South Africa some 35 years ago, he says, chickens took nine weeks to reach their slaughtering weight of 1.5-2 kilos. Now it takes just six weeks, and similar improvements have been seen in turkeys. More nutritious feed means shorter growth cycles, which means more birds sold. But it also means that less feed is needed, and that is another important saving. Whereas chickens require less than 2 kg. of feed for every kilo of meat sold, turkeys need close to 3 kg. - but that is much less of a disparity than was the case in the past, Friedman says. The bottom line is that farmers are now able to raise larger birds for less. ADDITIONALLY, THE quality of feed is being improved and ensured through filtering and treatment processes that Friedman and Lang liken to the "clean room" facilities at microchip manufacturers. Next door to their offices stands a poultry feed "clean facility" - one of few like it in the world, they boast - that treats feed to keep it free of bacteria and disease that could decimate flocks. "It's a very strict biosecurity facility," Friedman says, describing multiple layers of precautionary measures observed at the plant. "If we want to avoid problems like bird flu and other illnesses, we have to make sure the food is very, very, very clean. Because if the birds eat something contaminated, they will be contaminated. "Biosecurity means protecting your investment. If a flock dies of an illness, that's a lot of money lost." The final piece to the puzzle is a more sophisticated business model, including streamlining and integration. "Thirty years ago," says Lang on the way out of Hilman's farm, "there were 1,200 turkey farmers in this country. Now, there are fewer than 100, and production is slightly higher than it was back then. "Today it's mostly large companies, using more efficient methods. And they're all integrated. Tnuva, Tirat Zvi, everyone has a deal worked out to connect their businesses. The days of Farmer Brown tending his chicks are over." As long as the days of Farmer Hilman (and the big companies, too) aren't over as well. Turkey meat is a NIS 500 million-a-year industry, and one that a slow economy can't afford to lose. While Americans had the promise of "a chicken in every pot" during the Great Depression, Israeli farmers will be anxious to see whether "a turkey in every oven" - or at least a breast in every pita - is a slogan that will fly.