Why SA turkey’s a rarity

2010-12-21 00:00

ONE traditional dish that is unlikely to grace the Christmas dinner table of many locavores in KwaZulu-Natal is roast turkey. Locavores or localvores eat food produced within a 161-kilometre radius of their home. Apart from a local man who breeds the birds as a hobby, the nearest commercial turkey farms are in South America and Europe.

Turkeys (Meleagris Gallopavo) are native to North America, where they have been traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food since the Pilgrims hunted wild turkeys to serve on the first Thanksgiving Day. We can blame some French monks for the fact that turkey became the traditional Christmas meal in Great Britain and subsequently all its colonies, including English-speaking South Africa.

French Jesuits reportedly transported turkeys from North America to Britain in the mid-18th century. Until then, peacock, boar, and later goose, had been the centre of the traditional English Christmas celebration. Goose is said to have remained the main roast until the early 20th century when battery farming made turkey more affordable.

Apart from traditional Christmas dinner, turkey has reportedly never caught on locally as a regular meal, so there are no large commercial producers in this country.

The CEO of the Southern African Poultry Association (SAPA), Kevin Lovell said: “Over the years a number of producers have tried to produce turkeys profitably but have all failed … mostly due to the seasonality of the market. The last turkey farmer of any size who we are aware of recently shut up shop. We do not have a strong turkey-eating habit, unlike our chicken-eating habit.”

However, local supplier of free-range turkey products, Jarrod Hatting, founder of Hatting’s Sausages in Hilton said: “Demand is growing for turkey at Christmas — previously it was all gammon, gammon, gammon, but not anymore. I have been supplying turkey products for Christmas for the past four years and demand has doubled each year. This year I have more than 200 orders.”

Hatting sources free-range birds from a midlands farmer who breeds them as a hobby.

He worked in a turkey abbatoir in Britain and hoped to breed turkeys for the local market when he returned home in 2007. However, turkeys’ moulting habits made it financially risky.

“Turkeys moult in summer, leaving them with fine pin feathers. This makes cleaning them very labour-intensive and expensive to produce in this country. By contrast, it is winter in the northern hemisphere, so birds slaughtered there have their regular feathers, making them less expensive to process.”

Although one of the major turkey producers, Brazil, is also in the southern hemisphere, labour is cheap there, Hatting said, making turkey production financially viable.



Turkey imported for Xmas 2009: 6 405 tons

Turkey imported for Xmas 2010: about 5 805 tons

Major turkey suppliers: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Portugal and the United States

Volume of chicken for Xmas: about 19 million a week. — SA Poultry Association.

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