The Thanksgiving meal is about as American and traditional as it gets with nearly every family in the United States celebrating this national holiday – most with a roasted turkey on the table. Although many dishes have changed little in the past hundred years – bread stuffing, cornbread, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans – the turkey has changed dramatically. Before I tell you how the turkey has changed, I want to say this is not about shaming those who choose to eat turkey. The purpose is to inform the reader of what many turkey farmers, cooperatives, processors, and food companies don’t want consumers to know about the turkey on your table.
More than 300 million turkeys are killed each year with about 46 million just for Thanksgiving. Most turkey slaughter and processing facilities slaughter and process 20,000 or more turkeys per day. Below are caged turkeys waiting to be processed at the slaughterhouse owned by West Liberty Foods in West Liberty,Iowa (on October 29,2015).
The vast majority of turkeys sold in the United States are the Broad Breasted White Turkey variety. These birds have been bred to produce as much white breast meat as possible, resulting in males (referred to as “toms”) so large and top-heavy that they can’t walk, fly, or properly mount the females. Toms – raised separately from the hens – therefore have to be manually stimulated and “milked” for their semen, which is then inserted into a hen using a syringe (artificial insemination).
The eggs are taken from the hens and incubated for about 28 days. Once hatched, the baby turkeys (poults) spend 10 – 19 weeks crammed into large fully automated grow out warehouses with thousands of other poults of the same sex where they are fed a high protein starter feed for 4-8 weeks followed by a turkey grower feed to promote growth that is high in protein containing corn, grains, vitamin supplements, and often antibiotics and animal by-products, followed by a finisher feed which is lower in protein and higher in fat.
Once the birds are grown to the desired weight (35 – 50 pounds), the “catching crew” will catch the birds by their ankles, carrying them upside down and stuffing them into crowded cages and onto flatbed trucks for transportation to the processing plant where they are slaughtered. In the process, many of the turkeys suffer broken wings and legs.
After being transported to the slaughterhouse, the turkeys are shackled by their feet and dragged upside down through an electrified water bath designed to stun them before their throats are cut. Because the killing lines move so fast, some of the turkeys are not properly stunned. At the next station, an automated blade cuts their throats as they pass by, causing them to slowly bleed to death. The turkeys who were not properly stunned either suffer a slow, painful death, or continue to flap and writhe, and miss the blade. The turkey line moves to the next station on the assembly line – the scalding tank which loosens their feathers for removal. Once the feathers are removed, the bird is butchered, cleaned, processed, and packaged.
Although this post primarily focuses on the growing and processing of turkeys, it is also important to point out that the commercialization of turkeys has destroyed the bond between mother and baby turkeys by never allowing a baby turkey to meet or be nurtured by its mother. Turkeys love to be pet and will still seek human contact even after being treated cruelly.
Turkeys have personality, intelligence, and form friendships and deep bonds with not only their mothers, if allowed but also with caretakers. Large scale turkey farming disregards every humane aspect of raising an animal, which is deeply shameful. So, before you go to the grocery store and buy that frozen or fresh turkey, consider what your purchase is supporting: a business without compassion or humanity producing a product virtually unknown by our ancestors. Industries don’t survive unless consumers buy their products. Say no; don’t buy that turkey. Instead, celebrate Thanksliving which is what Thanksgiving is all about.