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Factory Farmed Turkeys—Nothing to be Thankful For

Thanksgiving dinner means only one thing for millions of us: turkey. Of the 100 million turkeys on farms around the U.S., 46 million of them will be eaten on Thanksgiving Day. Americans will consume another 22 million turkeys over the Christmas holidays, according to the National Turkey Federation.

When turkeys arrive at our supermarkets, plucked and cleaned, there’s nothing to alert us to the conditions endured by most of the birds that eventually land on our holiday tables. But the vast majority of the turkeys sold during the holidays come from industrial factory farms, where as many as 25,000 birds—pumped full of antibiotics and GMO corn—are crammed into a single barn.

So at a time of year when we are supposed to be thankful for the good things in life, spare a thought for that factory-farmed bird whose life is definitely nothing to be thankful for.

We’re number one!

Producing 7.5 billion pounds of turkey meat each year, the U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of turkey products. Top producing states include Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri.

Turkey production used to be seasonal, but today’s producers can raise birds year-round in huge industrial barns.

As consumers have become interested in healthier low-fat meats, turkey in the form of ground turkey, turkey breasts and deli meats, has become a meat for all seasons. Americans now eat just over 16 pounds of turkey per person each year.

But being the No. 1 producer of cheap industrial farmed turkey means we are also number one when it comes to causing suffering and cruelty, and perpetuating a whole host of unsustainable practices that ultimately make all our lives worse. (Organic Consumers sued Tyson earlier this year for making misleading claims of “humane treatment” and “environmental stewardship” about the brand’s chicken products. Some Tyson-owned Hillshire Farms brand turkey products claim on the package to be “all natural”).

Around 85-90 percent of the turkey we eat comes from industrial factory farms. The birds are raised in overcrowded, noisy, dirty environments with little or no access to outdoors and no ability to express natural behavior.

Intensively reared turkeys can be subjected to beak-trimming—a traumatic procedure, performed without anesthetic (used to ‘fix’ the tendency towards aggression and reduce injuries and cannibalism, which arise in birds kept in unnatural and crowded conditions). Beak-trimming is painful, damages tissue and nerves, and renders the bird unable to naturally explore and “sense” the world around it through its beak.

Turkeys are also victims of historical genetic manipulation. The turkey of the past was a much smaller bird than the one we eat today. Today’s bird is bred for fast growth and a higher proportion of breast meat. Selective breeding for rapid weight-gain, along with the use of high-nutrient feed, means that conventional turkeys are too heavy to support their own weight. This can lead to lameness, painful leg/hip-joint inflammation and infections.

Their large size and broad breasts mean male breeding turkeys (stags) are unable to mate naturally without risking injury to the female. As a result, artificial insemination has become routine. This procedure involves ‘milking’ the males for semen, and then catching and inseminating the females (hens) by tube/syringe.

It’s a short, miserable life. A bird that could live up to 12 years in the wild is routinely slaughtered at anywhere between 9 and 24 weeks.

Paying the price

“Thanks” to industrial farming, the price consumers pay at the grocery store for industrially produced turkey has consistently gone down over the last decade. On the surface, that sounds like a boon for consumers.

But the supermarket price tag doesn’t reflect the real costs associated with the production of factory farmed turkeys—including the cost of cleaning up environmental pollution and the health costs associated with consuming contaminated poultry.

Cheap turkey also comes at a big cost to the farmers that are under contract with companies like Cargill and Tyson to raise the birds before slaughter. Contract farmers, who account for about 69 percent of industrial turkey production,  are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet, thanks to the industry’s “vertically integrated” business model.

Under this model, the big companies maintain control over research, hatching, growing, feeding, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing of the birds. Farmers are almost incidental to the process—some even describe their lives as being like serfs.

The top five turkey-producing companies—Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill, Farbest and Tyson, respectively—dominate the market, producing 61.5 percent of all the turkey consumed in the U.S.

Of these Cargill, recently named by Might Earth the “worst company in the world,” is arguably the most controversial. As Mighty Earth reports:

“Throughout its history, Cargill has exhibited a disturbing and repetitive pattern of deception and destruction . . . its practices have ranged from violating trade embargoes and price fixing, to ignoring health codes and creating markets for goods produced with child and forced labor.”

The Mighty Earth report notes that “under pressure” the company has adopted a higher standard of practice in some areas “which shows that it can change when it wants to.” But such instances are rare and given that “the environmental protections and climate leadership from governments that may have once held the company’s worst instincts in check are now in retreat,” the pressure is largely off the company to up its game.

The traceability game

That bad/good image of Cargill is nicely illustrated by a recently initiated traceability scheme for Thanksgiving turkeys.

In 2017, Cargill trialed a 60,000-bird pilot scheme using an electronic record-keeping system known as ‘blockchain’.

Blockchain codes on every bird allowed producers to track each individual bird back to the state and county where it was raised, to see photos of the farm and read messages from the farmers.

Using the same code, customers could go to the website for Cargill’s Honeysuckle White brand turkey, and “get to know” the exact family farmer who raised their bird. 

Other food companies, notably Walmart and Nestlé are also experimenting with blockchain. 

Cargill claimed that the system improved traceability in a way that would instill consumer confidence. The project’s initial success has led to expansion of the program, to around 200,000 birds from 70 farms.

But questions remain. There are issues with blockchain (which evolved out of the cryptocurrency market) in general and with the Cargill system in particular.

The original concept of blockchain was an open, shared public “ledger” to which independent participants could contribute entries and information. While information about a product or company could be added by anyone, once there it could not be taken away. In this way the blockchain, in theory, keeps people honest, remains independent and can continue to grow without its “owner.”

Of course, a blockchain is also only as good as the information fed into it. If companies create their own bespoke blockchain systems, over which they have total control—as Cargill (and others) appear to have done with this in-house system—it’s easy to see how it could become just another meaningless marketing tool.

For the Honeysuckle White birds, critics say there is a lack of information about animal welfare, husbandry practices, environmental sustainability or farmer compensation. Claims that the farmers are “independent family farmers” have also been called as misleading. Most are contract growers working for Cargill.

In addition, while the blockchain “traceability” might make Honeysuckle White seem a better choice than, for example, the company’s other non-traceable turkey brand, Shady Brook Farms, the birds are basically the same.

What’s more, Cargill’s birds are basically the same—and live the same tragic lives—as those produced by the other big producers.

What to do?

Turkey is the food centerpiece of choice for 85 percent of those who celebrate Thanksgiving, and Americans will spend around $991 million on Thanksgiving turkeys this year. 

Though it may seem like a “luxury” there is no getting away from the fact that animals reared with the single goal of providing cheap meat for consumers are reared in ways that would turn most of our stomachs—and that diminishes both our lives and theirs.

It’s definitely nothing to be thankful for.

We can do better, we can shop better and we can eat better.

At any time of year, the big question is whether we can continue to justify the ongoing cruelty of factory farming – so much of which is hidden behind inadequate and confusing labels – and whether we are willing to take a stand at the supermarket checkout.

This holiday season, let’s make our values shine through in our actions. Check out our Holiday Turkey Buying Guide, or visit Regeneration International’s new map of regenerative farms and click here for regenerative and organic turkey producers, to see how to set yourself—and your turkey bird—free  from the chains of industrial farming.

Pat Thomas is a journalist, author and campaigner specializing in food, environment and health. See more on her website. To keep up with Organic Consumers Association (OCA) news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.