Trendy turkeys?

You better believe it. If turkeys were any more "in" these days they'd have to dress the gobblers up in Reebok tennis shoes and Guess jeans.That's right, turkeys aren't just for Thanksgiving any more. They've strutted out of their time-honored role as the centerpiece for holiday dinner tables and into a major role in the daily diet of many Americans.

Enter "designer turkey."

Hanker for a pastrami on rye? The turkey version tastes like the legitimate article. Making turkey bologna sandwiches for the kids lunches? They won't know the difference if you don't tell them. How about turkey ham? Most people can't tell it from the "real thing." Feel like gobbling a hot dog or hamburger? Try the turkey version, instead.

So, all right, you say. The turkey processors have gotten very good at making their favorite meat look and taste like a lot of other peoples' favorite meats. But why settle for a copy when you can get the real thing?

Good question, and the answer lies in the current national obsession with health, calories, cholesterol, slimmer figures and nutrition in general. One national magazine ranked turkey No. 1 in its "Ten Top Beauty Foods," ahead of such traditional good-for-you foods as milk, spinach, fish and whole-grain breads.

And the going price per pound for turkey vs. its competitors doesn't hurt a bit, either. The result? Graphs depicting turkey consumption look like sales charts for Nintendo video games. Americans are talking turkey.

The arithmetic is all in turkey's favor. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Handbook: "A three-ounce serving of roast turkey, without skin, has about half the calories of a similar slice of beef or pork and nearly 100 fewer calories than equal portions of veal or lamb."

But it hasn't been a walk in the park for the turkey industry. The ungainly gobblers (actually, only the toms truly "gobble;" hens make more of a squawk) haven't always had the best image in the world, at least the white, domesticated version hasn't. (Ben Franklin was so impressed with the handsome and intelligent wild turkey he wanted to make it our national bird.)

Credit the National Turkey Federation for turning that image around in recent years to where Americans are now consuming 15.6 pounds of turkey annually, an unprecedented 50 percent increase over 1982 and the highest level since the pilgrims first sat down to dinner.

Does this mean the beef, pork and lamb growers need to start looking for new jobs? Not yet, says Norbest, the 57-year-old Utah-based firm that is riding the crest of turkey's new-found popularity.

"We (the turkey industry) have a long way to go to catch beef and pork, whose consumption rates are remaining stable or losing a little ground," said John B. Hall, vice president and secretary of Norbest. "But we are headed in the right direction. We are innovative - some call us crazy - but we are increasing turkey consumption."

No doubt about that. USDA statistics show turkey consumption up 600 percent last year over 1960, a 25-year upward cycle.

Ken Rutledge, Norbest's new president and general manager, (see profile of Rutledge on opposite page) is riding the "trendy" label for all it's worth. "The concept of trendy turkeys is paying off," said Rutledge who took over the top job from Owen Sumsion who retired at the end of 1987 after 28 years of service.

"Just look at the luncheon meats in your supermarkets," said Rutledge, " and notice how poultry products have taken over large portions of the display space - space once occupied by red meat products. We are definitely on the right track."

Among Utah's oldest and most stable companies, Norbest Inc. is a cooperative, the largest turkey co-op in the world and the fourth largest turkey processing organization in the nation. Comprised of some 250 growers in Utah, Oregon, Nebraska and Minnesota, the group sold 230 million pounds of turkey in 1987.

Founded in 1930 - Norbest chose Salt Lake City as its headquarters because of its rail access and centralized position in the West - the original name of the co-op was Northwestern Turkey Growers Association. Its mission: produce and package a higher grade of turkey; reduce speculation on price and availability as much as possible; utilize federal grades of uniform standard quality; create respect and confidence among consumers.

Apparently they haven't done a bad job of meeting those four goals. Today, Norbest is the number one turkey brand west of the Mississippi and in second place nationally to Butterball, produced by Swift and Co.

But few companies make it through 58 years without a little rain on their parade and Norbest is no exception. In September, 1986, the company pleaded guilty to two charges involving substituting water for turkey meat and diverting meat donated by the federal government to the school lunch program to its own commercial processing operation.

The $871,000 in fines levied against the co-op is now being paid off over a five year period, ironically not in cash but in donations of turkey to the school lunch program.

In a way, the intense negative publicity that Norbest incurred from the incident, particularly in Utah, was undeserved because Norbest Inc. is a sales and marketing agency that is hired by independent entities to market their products. Norbest owns no plants nor does it directly operate the facilities.

In the 1986 case involving the plant in Salina, Norbest got involved in that end of the business in a joint venture with the Utah Turkey Growers. It was intended to be a research and development facility that would get Norbest into the "further processed" end of the roasted turkey business.

"Unfortunately," said Rutledge, "we hired an unsavory character and got into some wrongdoing. Actually, that was never proved, but we felt the allegations by USDA had some substance so we decided to immediately close the facility, terminate the individual responsible, and hope that would put it behind us.

"And I think it has," he added. "We've instituted some checks in our plants, changed our methodology, tightened our specifications and have decided that Norbest, as a company, will not be directly involved in production of products beyond writing the specs and procedures."

To put it bluntly, said Rutledge, "We cleaned house after the NorPro situation (the joint venture company) and we feel we are on track. Our reputation in the industry is good and we have done enough consumer surveys to know we have a good public image."

The nature of the product has always brought out "creative" (some would say flamboyant) marketing touches among those responsible for advertising and promotion at Norbest. With an original ad budget of less than $1,000 they had to be innovative. One stunt still talked about centered around the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair where Sally Rand secured immortality with her now legendary fan dance.

Norbest promoters convinced Rand to substitute her fan of feathers for a Norbest turkey in full plumage. Not surprisingly, the photos appeared nationwide at very little expense to Norbest. Whether they helped sell turkeys remains unclear.

Another marketing coup occurred in 1936 when then Utah Gov. Henry H. Blood presented a live Utah turkey to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, complete with a special crate built to look like the White House. The event was the forerunner to the turkey industry's annual Thanksgiving presentation to the nation's chief executive.

On a more prosaic level, Norbest, in 1968, gave the industry the "Tender Timer" automatic roasting gauge in which a red stem pops up when the bird is done. Also in the late '60s, Norbest introduced pre-based turkeys and turkey products internally basted with herbs and seasonings.

Norbest was the first processor to offer cleaned, packaged, oven-ready turkeys and is the nation's largest supplier of large - 34 pounds and up - toms and boneless roasts for commercial food service.

But marketing gimmicks have nothing to do with turkey's resurgence, said Hall.

"There is more to the current popularity of turkey than just promotion and packaging. It isn't all fluff. There's a lot of substance to our product. That's why turkey has vaulted past its image of being only a traditional feast food and today is in the spotlight as a modern, everyday meat for health and budget conscious Americans.

"The price is right, too," added Hall. "While turkey consumption has increased 50 percent in the past five years, real prices for turkey to consumers have declined some 50 percent since 1950."

For that, Hall credits new techniques in breeding, feeding and processing.

Turkey processing has kept pace with marketing as Norbest growers are producing larger and healthier birds in less time than ever. Plants now process a turkey in 90 minutes, a process repeated some 30,000 times a day in Moroni, where one of the nation's largest turkey plants processes birds supplied by 115 Norbest growers.

Last February, some 800 area residents gathered in the Moroni LDS Stake Activity Center to talk turkey - 50 years of turkey growing extending back to the incorporation of the Moroni Feed Co., founded Jan. 20, 1938. The celebration honored the turkey industry in Sanpete County in general and the Moroni Feed Co. co-op in particular. Special tribute was paid to Evan Johnson, Manti, and Ray Tanner, Fairview, two of the surviving original founders of the company.

Today, the Moroni plant covers five acres and has the capacity to process and freeze 600,000 pounds of turkey per day. The effects of Norbest's $8.5 million annual payroll on the area's economy cannot be exaggerated.

"When you add to that payroll the multiplier effect (the additional spending encouraged by the original salary), the dollar figures are very impressive and you get a good idea why the turkey industry is so important to us here in Moroni, in all of Sanpete County, and in the entire state," said Frank Cook, manager of the co-op's feed division in Moroni.

Other Norbest co-op members are the Utah Turkey Growers, Salina; Oregon Turkey Growers, Salem, Ore.; West Central Turkey Growers, Pelican Rapids, Minn.; and the Nebraska Turkey Growers, Gibbon, Neb.

A new plant and a new member of the co-op, Roxford Foods, Fresno, Calif., will join Norbest in July upon completion of a $16 million facility to serve the West Coast. Also, Norbest's expertise is being used in the People's Republic of China where the company is helping the government launch a turkey processing program.

But the road to prosperity is an uneven one for turkey growers even in an age of rising consumption. Like farmers everywhere, supply and demand is a critical factor for growers and last year the balance tilted in favor of consumers but away from profitability for growers.

According to Norbest's annual report the "overwhelming availability" of turkey in storage became evident in October and the result was predictable: tom prices dropped from 55 cents to 47 cents per pound and hens from 57 cents to 53 cents. Some tom sales were reported even in the low 40s.

As a result of promotions to alleviate the excess, a "competitive spark" was ignited across the nation. The next thing that happened was apparent shortages, with prices shooting up to 65 cents for both hens and toms.

"How could this happen?" asks the report. No one knows for sure, is the reply, but two things are clear: "Markets react to what people think a situation is, not necessarily what it may actually be. And we can actually `talk' a market down. On a down market, one load is a surplus that needs a home. On an up market, a 100 load inventory instills a feeling of being short of needs."

If there was a culprit in 1987 for the seesaw market, says the report, it appears to be the government reports on storage holdings. "We need to exercise caution in evaluating the USDA monthly storage reports," says the Norbest report.

For 1988, Norbest will continue its ongoing effort toward more balanced year-round production. "The turkey industry continues in a state of transition, " says the report. "Flexibility continues to be the key to a successful operation."