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Meat industry cries 'fowl' over turkey going by any other name

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things: Of shoes -- of ships -- of sealing wax -- . . . And whether pigs have wings."m -- Lewis Caroll in "Through the Looking Glass."

Whether pigs have wings has, in a sense, become a real issue.

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The above quotation, familiar to children of all ages, was recently recited in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia by a lawyer to make a simple point: Pigs don't fly, turkeys do; therefore, turkeys are not the same as pigs.

But the attorney -- Michele Crown, who represents the American Meat Institute -- says this distinction has so far failed to resolve the sizzling controversy over the turkey producers who refuse to stop calling one of their major products "turkey ham."

The meat institute succeeded in obtaining a district court injunction against turkey marketers using that name, but the injunction was subsequently stayed pending an appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

While this foment churns in the court this Thanksgiving season, one fact is no figment of the imagination: Turkeys are gobbling up more and more of a share of the American meat market. And at least part of the increase is due to aggressive, and, some say, unfair, marketing of turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey salami, and the latest -- "turkey steak" -- which has some cattlemen burned up.

"It's very much a controversy," says Tom Beall, director of research for the National Cattlemen's Association. "Calling something 'turkey steak' implies that it is a steak. But we haven't faced the problem the pork people have."

Behind the flap is more than pride or tradition; the real issue is economics.

For instance, a US Department of Agriculture survey showed that 19 percent of the shoppers sampled were confused by the label "turkey ham." So it is conceivable, but impossible to be sure, says Miss Crown, that some shoppers buy turkey ham thinking they are getting "real" pork ham.

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And right now the problem of economic competition is compounded by "too much of all kinds of meat" on the market today, Mr. Beall notes.

In 1975, per capita beef consumption was 120.1 pounds; this year it is expected to drop to 106.2 pounds, according to the American Meat Institute, which represents beef and pork producers. By contrast, per capita pork consumption has gone from 56.1 pounds in 1975 to an estimated 75.1 pounds this year. Per capita poultry consumption has risen from 49.2 pounds to 62.4 for the same years.

Economists and food experts trace these trends to the lower relative cost of poultry and pork, together with high-powered marketing campaigns.

For turkeys alone, there will be a 7 percent increase in the number grown this year for American tables, or a whopping 168 million birds total. And consumption in the past year has soared 15 percent, according to Lew Walts, executive director of the National Turkey Federation. Last year, consumers purchased 150 million pounds of the big birds during the month of November, and this figure too is expected to jump substantially.

Mr. Walts vigorously defends his industry's controversial turkey ham and turkey steak, the full name for the latter being "cube turkey thigh steak," which he acknowledges has only limited distribution around the country at the present time. He adds their market is "certainly going to grow. . . ."

But not if Miss Crown can help it. Why should turkeys, she asks, be permitted "to capitalize on the goodwill the pork industry has built up over the years. . . ?"

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