Is Turkey Meat a Better Option?

turkey farm

When we think of turkeys, the first thoughts that come to mind might be “gobble gobble” or a memory of a Christmas lunch or dinner. We tend to not think about the individuals, what they are like, or how they are raised. Every year, around 650 million curious, sensitive turkeys are prematurely killed for human consumption. The individuals who end up on our plates are descendants from the native United States wild turkey. The domesticated turkey is a result of genetic alterations after years of selective breeding. They have lost their exquisite colours and grow to abnormally large sizes, making them unable to mate naturally and struggle to walk. Our demands have stripped them from their natural behaviours, shoving them into sheds and leaving them there until they reach their slaughter weight. These practices aren’t just impacting the turkeys, it’s also affecting the environment, our own health, and the health of society.

About Turkeys

Turkeys are deeply misunderstood and there is a common misconception that they are “dumb” birds, but this is far from true. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to meet a turkey, you would know just how inquisitive they are, that they have unique personalities, and they can produce the most magnificent sounds. 

Turkeys are intelligent

Turkeys have been noted to possess “marked” intelligence, displayed in their complex social relationships, their communication methods, and their ability to solve problems [1]. People tend to rank intelligence using human abilities as the determining factor, when in reality, every animal is intelligent in their own way. They just have different mental needs than us to be able to survive and thrive! Turkeys have excellent hearing and eyesight, seeing three times more clearly than 20/20 vision and can even see ultraviolet light! They have well-developed vocabularies, using voices to recognise each other, and are good at geography! A wild turkey’s home can exceed several thousand acres and they know the area in precise detail [2]. If the land is not optimal, they will travel across thousands of acres, returning to different parts during the various seasons, showing that they can remember exact locations even after a year of absence [3]

wild turkey

Turkeys are sentient

Not only are they smart, but they are also sentient, meaning they can perceive, feel, and experience things. All poultry species are sentient and are capable of feeling emotions, like joy, pain, fear, and stress [1]. Turkeys can display how they are feeling by changing the colour of their wattle! It is more prominent on males than females. Normally the wattle is red, it is a sign of health and in males can signify wooing. It turns blood red when they feel enlivened, frightened, or overwhelmed. When they are scared or anxious, the blood leaves the snood leaving it a blue colour, while a white or a pale colour means they are feeling unwell [45].

Turkeys form strong social bonds with family and flockmates. They are loyal and protective of their friends and also love to play [6]. Their flocks have up to 50 individuals and there is a distinct hierarchy. They can easily distinguish a new individual [7]. Several scientific studies have been conducted on turkeys and their emotional and psychological lives. When separated from their flock, they will squawk until they are reunited. They also mourn the death of their flock members, and anticipate pain, having heart attacks after watching their friends die [8].

wild turkey
A happy wild turkey.

Turkeys can fly

There is a common misconception that turkeys cannot fly because they are “dumb”, but this isn’t true. Wild turkeys can fly up to 85km an hour although average around 40km an hour. The individuals who are used for their flesh, however, have been selectively bred to an abnormal size, and their wings cannot support their body, making them unable to fly [9].

Poults rely on their caring mothers

Baby turkeys, known as poults, have poor eyesight when they are born and need their mums’ to guide them. The mothers stay with and care for their young until they are able to fly up and roost in the trees [10]. The females will stay with the flock, while males will break off and form a separate flock close by.

The Industry

The turkey meat industry kills approximately 650 million turkeys every year, equating to roughly 5.7 million tonnes [11]. The United States is the biggest consumer, creating over half of the demand [12]. While Australia’s demand is much lower, we still kill roughly 5 million individuals a year, with most turkeys being eaten during the Christmas period.

Standards and Welfare Issues

The turkey industry is founded on legalised cruelty, from unnatural living conditions to mutilations, and premature slaughter. From the moment the turkeys hatch they experience severe pain and stress for their entire lives. The following information is in regards to Australian turkey farms.

turkey farm
Victorian turkey farm.
Credit: Animal Liberation

Breeders

Australia has no commercial turkey egg industry, so the breeder eggs are imported from the United States and Canada. Once they hatch they are kept in sheds until they are ready to start laying eggs at 7 months old. Turkeys have been selectively bred to grow at a much faster rate. To reduce this speed, breeders have their feed restricted and are left chronically hungry. Breeder hens produce 105 eggs over 28-weeks, and are killed once they are no longer profitable [13]

Antibiotics

The breeder flock is vaccinated against common avian diseases like haemorrhagic enteritis, cholera, and fowl pox, and this provides immunity to the poults (babies), who are normally not vaccinated [13]. Some farmers still opt to mix antibiotics into their feed to reduce the possibility of an outbreak [14]. The use of antibiotics also assists in increasing their growth and growth rates [15].

Artificial Insemination

To create an endless supply of turkeys, males and females must mate. Selective breeding has resulted in the development of abnormally large and heavy breasts, making it impossible for turkeys to mate naturally. As a result, females are artificially inseminated. For this to happen, males must be ‘milked’. ‘Milking’ originally involved three workers, one to hold the male in a bent-over position, the second to stimulate him to ejaculate, and the third to collect the semen [1617]. Now there are devices to hold the turkey in place so that one worker can stimulate and collect the semen. For the females, one worker would place the hen between their legs, with their wings behind the knees, they then apply pressure to her abdomen on either side of the vent, while the second person uses a syringe into the oviduct and releases the semen [1617]. Now there is a device to hold the female in place, so one person can inseminate her. Males will go through this on average two times a week, while females inseminated once a week [18].

This process is very stressful for both males and females. What is interesting is that most Australian States and Territories have laws that prohibit sexual contact with animals, yet, farm animals are excluded from these laws because sexual contact is an integral part of artificial insemination procedures.

Turkey artificial insemination
Turkey artificial insemination

Confined living

After hatching in an incubator, the turkeys are sorted by sex and sent to farms [13]. Approximately 90% of them are farmed in intensive, factory farms. The average shed holds up to 14,000 individuals, giving each bird approximately an A3 paper of space. As the birds grow, the space in the sheds becomes more cramped. This makes it harder for them to exhibit natural behaviours, like spreading their wings, flying, perching, foraging, running, dust bathing, and even breathing fresh air and feeling sunlight. Turkeys naturally perch in trees, however, the sheds do not allow this, and an electrified wire prevents them from nesting on the feeders. As mentioned earlier, wild turkeys travel across thousands of acres in a year, and this lack of exercise and stimulation affects them mentally and physically.

The sheds also have artificial lighting, which is designed to manipulate their sleeping and eating patterns, to increase their weight in a short time frame [19]

turkey farm
Typical turkey farm.
Credit: Animal Liberation (2017)

An undercover investigation, found that the crowded sheds make it difficult for sick and injured turkeys to reach the automated water and feed systems. As a result, individuals suffer from scratches, feather loss, and injuries, due to trampling by other birds. 

injured turkey farm
Injured turkey.
Credit: Animal Liberation

Free-range

The term “free-range” does not mean much for the turkeys. The Australian standards are full of “shoulds”, rather than ‘musts’. For example, environmental enrichment, such as straw bales, perches, “should be provided”. Turkeys on free-range farms have slightly lower stocking densities and have access to outdoors. In saying this, “openings should be at least 35 cm high and 40 cm wide and provide an aggregate width of at least 2m per 1000 birds.” – meaning they could be smaller [20]. Keep in mind, a turkey will grow to be approximately 122cm tall [21]. Sick or injured turkeys can also be culled with cervical dislocation (up to 8kg), or with CO2 or captive bolt (over 8kg) [20]

Poults

All poults are raised without their mothers. In the farms, poults are vulnerable to stress, heart attacks, and starving to death, as they are unable to find food and water without their mother to guide them. Others enter a state of shock and stop eating, known as ‘starve out’ [22]

poults turkey farm
Poults in a shed
Credit: NSW Farmers

Selective breeding

Turkeys used for their meat grow at a much quicker rate than their ancestors and have been genetically selected to have larger breasts and thighs [16]. This is due to selective breeding over decades to increase their size and the way they convert feed [23]. They are typically a hybrid between two or more breeds, with white being preferred due to their lighter flesh colour [16]. This abnormal growth rate exceeds the capacity of their heart, resulting in poor capillary supply and muscle fibre degeneration. Approximately 0.5-2% of individuals die from heart disease and organ failure.

dead turkeys farm
Pit of turkeys who died in the sheds.
Credit: Animal Liberation

Additionally, their skeletons do not grow at the same accelerated rate, leading to lameness, pain, crippled legs, and swollen joints. Their abnormal weight imbalance has changed the leg position of the turkey, causing them to develop a range of muscle and skeletal disorders and leaving them struggling to walk. Many are unable to stand, leaving them with ammonia burns on their chest and legs, and suffering a slow death due to starvation and thirst. Others fall onto their backs and are unable to right themselves and starve to death, known as ‘flips’ [24].

Mutilation

The stress of confinement and an inability to exhibit natural behaviours results in neurotic behaviours, like feather plucking or cannibalism. A way to prevent this is to cut off the tip of their beaks and toes. At just one day old, using an infra-red laser, the tip of the beaks are lasered off [1317]. Additionally, some turkeys have their toes trimmed using an infra-red laser to remove the toenail and nail bed to prevent the regrowth of the nail [1325]. This is done to “improve carcass grades”, as it reduces scratching and injuries from other birds [26]. Breeding males have the terminal segment of each inward-pointing toe and their snood cut off to reduce cannibalism and injuries [13]. These individuals are not given any anaesthetic or post-treatment pain relief. 

debeaking turkey
Left: Normal beak; Right: After beak trimming

Slaughter

Females are killed at 10 weeks old when they are 5-6kg, while males are killed at 18 weeks when they are 7-11kg [13]. Their slaughter age depends on customer requirements. Rescued turkeys typically suffer and die after a year or so of freedom, due to their overgrown bodies and stress on their organs. This is a stark contrast to wild turkeys who can live for up to ten years [16]. 

Turkeys are withheld feed for up to 24 hours before slaughter. The depopulation process usually happens at night, as the birds are less active. They are caught by hand and shoved into the crates for transport. The typical transport crate is 32cm [27 PDF]. Domestic turkeys are roughly 122cm tall and thus are forced to travel in extremely cramped conditions. As a result, many end up with bruises, fractured and broken bones, amputated toes, and all have high stress levels [2829]

turkey slaughter truck
Turkeys on a truck heading to the slaughterhouse.
Credit: Animal Liberation

After the journey on the trucks, they are ‘rested’ for up to 2 hours, before they are removed from their crates and hung upside down by their fragile legs. During an investigation, workers claimed that some of their legs rip off from their bodies due to their weight. They are dragged through an electrified water-bath for stunning, and then have their throats slit and are left to bleed out [13]. Some birds fight and lift their heads over the bath, leaving them to have their throats slit while they are alive.

In 2013, Animal Liberation exposed cruelty to turkeys at a Sydney slaughterhouse. Workers were seen bashing, kicking, and stomping on the turkeys, as well as slamming the birds into the ground [30]

The Environment

Turkey farming is considered to be more environmentally friendly in comparison to cattle, sheep, and pig farming. This is largely because turkeys can be crammed into smaller spaces, they do not have to graze, they reach their slaughter weight in a shorter time frame, and they are more efficient at converting food into bodyweight. This view, however, ignores just how much feed and water are needed to meet current demands, the waste these animals produce, and the pollution it creates.

Land and Resources

The reason turkeys use less land than cows and sheep is that most are raised inside sheds, reducing the amount of land required to farm them. While this may be better for the environment, it has detrimental impacts on the turkeys, who are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours as mentioned earlier. In saying this, the food given to turkeys requires a large amount of land. An analysis of the turkey meat industry found that for every 1kg of turkey meat 2.27kg of feed is needed [31] and 4,325L of water [32]. While 2.27kg doesn’t sound like much, if you consider the amount of feed required for the 5.7 million tonnes of turkey meat, approximately 12.94 million tonnes of feed is needed every year. If demand continues to grow, so does the demand for their feed, resulting in an increase in land clearing, reducing natural habitats and native species, and increasing erosion and pollution. If you look at how much freshwater is needed for 5.7 million tonnes of turkey, approximately 24,652,500,000,000,000L of water is being used, all of which is taken from the natural environment. Keep in mind, the industry considered this as a “moderate” water footprint [32]

land clearing

Waste and Pollution

In addition to resources, turkey farms are a major producer of waste in the form of manure, dead birds, food particles, and shed litter, affecting air quality, the environment, and potentially surrounding waterways. The waste releases ammonia, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and methane [34]. It is estimated that 1kg of turkey meat produces around 10.9kg of CO2 [32, 33]. Again, if we look at the 5.7 million tonnes of turkey meat produced, around 62,130,000,000kg of CO2 is produced every year. It also releases poisonous gases and heavy dust particles into the air.

waste turkey farm

Sheds are typically not cleaned until the end of the 10-12 week cycle. The manure, shed litter, and any remaining dead or dying birds are collected and stored or processed to become fertiliser. The waste also contains antibiotics that were added to the feed, and if used for fertilizer, enters the environment. Once used as fertilizer, excess nutrients enter the environment and make their way into the groundwater and surrounding waterways, causing pollution and algal bloom outbreaks [35].

Our Health

Turkey meat is sold as a ‘healthy’ alternative because it is low in fat and high in protein, but this doesn’t mean it is healthy, per se. These animals have been selectively bred to grow larger than their ancestors and are raised in conditions that look nothing like their natural habitat. These elements have brought on a range of health issues that are non-existent in their wild relatives. These animals are suffering from respiratory issues due to high ammonia content in the air, have heart issues due to their growth and weight, and their skin and legs are covered in burns from the waste. If you look at pictures of turkeys inside the sheds, almost all of their wattles are pale red, blue, or white, highlighting that they are unwell, stressed, and anxious. We ask you, do you really think it is ‘healthy’ to eat a sick animal? 

On top of this, eating processed meat, like turkey slices, increases your chances of developing stomach and colorectal cancer [36]. Scientists estimate that decreasing the amount of processed meat we eat by even just “half of a turkey sandwich” can lower the total number of colorectal cancers by about 20% [37]! Eating processed turkey products also increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and has been associated with an increased risk of death [38].

turkey farm
Sick and injured turkeys on an Australian Farm.
Credit: Animal Liberation 2017

Society

Confining 18 thousand birds into a single shed creates a breeding ground for diseases. The birds are living in their own waste, are fed rendered animals (hooves, bones, blood, feathers, the bodies of those who died before slaughter, and heads) [39], making it possible for a virus to mutate and spread. In August, several thousand turkeys were destroyed after a new strain of the avian flu (bird flu) was found at two Victorian farms [40]. Currently, only workers or those in close proximity to the birds are at risk of catching the virus from the birds, as it is unlikely to spread from person to person. While the Government claims that this is not a risk for consumers, it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates again to be able to spread from human to human.

“as long as there is poultry, there will be pandemics” 

Dr Michael Greger [41]

As mentioned earlier, turkeys are given antibiotics to protect them against diseases. While Australia claims only a few grower turkey farms use it in feed, globally, around 1 million kilograms of antibiotics are used by the poultry industry. All animal agriculture industries use approximately 40% of antibiotics produced globally [42]. The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is leading towards the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses in humans [43]. If viruses mutate to be resistant to current antibiotics this will ultimately result in a higher mortality rate for humans. Additionally, it places wildlife at risk of new strains and could wipe out native populations.

Workers

Workers on the farms are exposed to high levels of toxins in the air and suffer from respiratory issues, itchy and watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, throat discomfort, and sneezing [44].

Killing up to 10,000 animals an hour is taxing on a slaughterhouse worker’s mental and physical health. While most people would not be able to take the life of an animal, workers are expected to kill thousands per shift [45]. Australian research found that the repeated exposure to violence in a slaughterhouse causes psychological damage, with meatworkers having aggression levels that are similar to those of incarcerated populations [46]. Others experience violent dreams, PTSD, depression, paranoia, panic, and dissociation [39]

Additionally, workers face many occupational hazards including, intense noises, animals fighting for their lives, extreme temperatures, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, fast-moving blades and machinery, and exposure to harsh chemicals, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites [4739].

slaughterhouse worker

What’s Next?

Without artificial insemination, the genetically modified turkeys would become extinct in this generation. Our demand for turkey flesh is denying them their needs, destroying the environment, is bad for our health, public health, and slaughterhouse workers.

Just by leaving turkey off of our plates, we are showing that we do not support animal cruelty, we want to protect the environment, we care about other people, and our health!


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