In Australia, approximately 90% of turkey farms are intensive. This means that the turkeys natural behaviours, inclinations and wellbeing, are fundamentally repressed.
Turkeys are social and intuitive birds who, when living in natural conditions, are family-oriented and learn from one another. Mothers are attentive and caring towards their young, and teach their offspring important survival skills, including what to eat, how to evade predators and assist in the development of crucial social habits. This is in large part due to the fact that it is unnatural for ground-nesting birds to be isolated from their young. As Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns (UPC) maintains, “the mother turkey is the centre of the young birds’ universe”. Young turkeys have very limited vision, and if they are separated, young turkeys (known as poults) will experience panic and signal to their mother that they are alone with a ‘lost call’. Upon hearing this, the mother runs to find her young. For the first months of their lives, poults will sleep on the ground beneath their mother’s wings. By the age of 3 months, the age at which most commercial turkeys are slaughtered, wild turkeys establish social hierarchies, can recognise members of their own social grouping, and can discern others who belong to other groupings. Adult turkeys can fly at speeds of 55 miles (88km) per hour, and run 25 miles (40km) per hour.
Worldwide, over 650 million turkeys are slaughtered each year for meat. In Australia, between 3 and 5 million 3-month-old turkeys are slaughtered every year for their flesh, and this staggering number is multiplying as farm sizes increase.
In NSW, two large turkey farms dominate the poultry meat production industry: Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd and Ingham Pty Ltd. Aside from these major processors there are two relatively smaller companies operating in the Sydney region (Cordina Farms and Red Lea Chickens) and one independent operation in Tamworth that grows and processes turkeys (Quast Turkeys).
In factory farms across Australia, turkeys are crowded in sheds with up to 14,000 others and live in a space roughly the size of an A3 sheet of paper. Living on a litter of rice hulls, straw or wood shavings, these sheds are not cleaned until the turkeys are sent to slaughter, up to 3 months from the time they arrive. The resulting abundance of faeces, coupled with poor management, cleaning, and inadequate air ventilation produces a proliferation of ammonia, which causes burns, respiratory infections, ulcerated feet and irritated eyes.
As they grow, the lack of space becomes increasingly unbearable, leaving the birds incapable of performing any natural behaviour. They are essentially imprisoned in a vast expanse that paradoxically leaves them no room, and unable to even see the sun, daylight or breathe natural air. Lighting is orchestrated to alter normal sleeping and eating sequences, principally to multiply the birds’ consumption and limit movement. These methods, however, wreak havoc on the functioning of the body and result in a multitude of diseases and problems. As slaughter draws nearer, lighting is increased, leaving the turkeys to suffer from prolonged periods without sleep and an added element of distress. Vision and the ability to see their surroundings are vitally important to birds. Their behaviour is “predominately visually mediated,” meaning that adequate and uninhibited vision is a requisite for their welfare. The lighting regimes undertaken by the turkey industry, however, are not concerned with the welfare issues such methods raise. Instead, focus is reserved for the potential profitability artificial lighting can accrue.
This desire to increase profit at the expense of welfare is highlighted by the use of antibiotics. Due to the interminable crowding and the disease and infection that this encourages, turkeys are fed a regimen of antibiotics to curb outbreaks. Antibiotics were first introduced into animal farming in the 1950s, and the extent of their application has since ballooned to a staggering 80 per cent of all antibiotics used in the United States. Whilst the meat industry maintains that residues of antibiotics have not proven dangerous to human consumers, the US-based Consumers Union disagrees, arguing that because they have been used so extensively and over a prolonged period, it constitutes a “major public health threat”. Food and Water Watch explicitly state that antibiotic resistance is encouraged by their use in factory farms. Denmark and Sweden have proactively confronted this issue by banning the administering of antibiotics in animals raised for human consumption.
In natural conditions, turkeys, like many other birds, take great pleasure in perching. In factory farms, this is an intended impossibility – an electrified cable skirts most of their feeders in factory farms, utterly crushing their ability to lead natural lives. The Humane Society of the United States maintains that turkey’s intricate social and exploratory behaviour is essentially and drastically inhibited.
In so-called “grow-out” houses, turkeys live in desolate automated sheds that categorically crush innate desires and instincts. The lighting in the sheds is kept faint and the heating is high. Due to the separation from their mothers, young turkey poults are continually at risk of starvation as they do not have the guidance of their parent. A condition known as ‘starve-out’ occurs when they stop eating, primarily due to the shock of their confinement and lack of guidance.
Modern commercial turkey breeds are raised to develop at an abnormally swift speed, leading to a litany of health and welfare issues that cause severe and prolonged pain, injury, and trauma. Turkeys in commercial factory farms suffer from bone and muscle problems, leading to agonising leg disorders due primarily to their rapid growth.
According to a 2015 report published by the Department of Primary Industries, poultry meat consumption has expanded from being an “occasional meal” to one that accounts for 36% of the global meat demand. USDA reports calculate that the value of turkey meat production increased by 10% from 2014 to 2015, with hatcheries raising over 1 million turkeys each year. Although the “traditional Christmas feast” of turkey meat is most common in America, a cursory search of available information shows that Australians are increasingly choosing to participate as well. According to a 2015 Roy Morgan Research study, there is “a distinct, recurring spike in turkey consumption over the December-January period every year,” and a number of cooking magazines, food websites, and supermarket chains advertise “How to cook the perfect Christmas turkey” (ABC),“Talking turkey: we’re gobbling more than ever” (News.com.au) and “Turkey, not just for Christmas” (the title of an advertising campaign by Steggles).
At the slaughterhouse, turkeys are unloaded from crates and hung upside-down from shackles. This can be extremely painful, especially for the breeder turkeys who weigh as much as an 8 or 9 year old child. We have heard reports from slaughterhouse workers that sometimes their legs rip off from their body. The turkeys are dragged upside down through a bath of electrified water to stun them before their throats are cut. Some turkeys may struggle during this procedure and their heads may miss the bath of water. These turkeys will be fully conscious while having their throats cut.
Unlike their wild forebears, commercially raised turkeys have been bred and selected solely for “productivity and profit”. Turkey breeders proactively “select” birds genetically programmed to develop quickly and with immense weight, allowing rapid profits and higher levels of production. This, however, has come at a significant cost to animal welfare.
The Department of Primary Industries acknowledges that Australian poultry industries import animals from international breeding facilities for this very purpose. These birds have been genetically engineered to grow to twice the size in half the amount of time their wild descendants did. Because of this, modern turkeys are riddled with physical ailments that make it painful to move, plagued with lameness, heart problems and deficient immune systems, and are unable to procreate naturally, giving rise to the practice of artificial insemination – a procedure that has been applied to the commercial turkey industry since the 1950s. A guide published by the Oregon State College in 1954 stated that artificial insemination is best considered a ‘stop-gap’ to be used until “fertile broad breasted turkeys are generally available”. However, the practice is still used extensively within the commercial turkey industry, due largely to the strain selective breeding has had on normal biological functioning.
The artificially induced growth of turkeys induces a myriad of skeletal problems that subsequently affect essential organ functioning. One ailment common to commercially raised and slaughtered turkeys is known in the industry as ‘cowboy legs,’ which can become fatal when they are unable to adequately move, resulting in trampling or culling by producers.
Welfare Shows No Signs of Improving
Reports acknowledge that due to the manner in which turkeys are bred, these problems are liable to become more widespread and pervasive. The economics that drive the system also drives birds to short lives of immense and perpetual suffering.
Circulatory problems, or complications in the heart and cardiovascular system that enable blood circulation and nutrient provisions, are a prevailing welfare concern within the commercial turkey industry. As a Utah State University reports, “the consequences of breeding for rapid growth have undoubtedly affected the occurrence of circulatory-related mortality in commercial turkey flocks.” This is a problem that the industry is reluctant to remedy as it will ultimately result in cuts to their profits.
The overwhelming majority of poultry meat production, including turkey meat, is managed and owned by “third-party contract growers,” which the Department of Primary Industries maintain are “family farms” averaging a total of four intensive confinement sheds each property. There are, however, two larger companies that provide “growing-out” services in NSW, peaking at a height of 64 sheds. Most of the growing facilities are owned and operated by vertically integrated companies, a system wherein companies “own or control most aspects of the supply and production chain”. The growers provide the farms with the turkeys, who are explicitly recast as units of production and designated little more than a number and a weight.
At the end of their short lives, all commercialy raised turkeys will make the final journey to slaughter. This, in itself, presents a final and twisted litany of welfare concerns. Once the turkeys reach their target weight, workers force them to gather and crowd them onto conveyers belts towards the crates they will be transported in. The minimum height requirement for these crates is little more than 30 centimetres, the length of a school ruler, a size grossly inadequate for the size of the birds. During transport, turkeys are vulnerable to suffering a range of injuries, including bruising and bleeding, fractures, and suffocation. External factors, including weather and exposure to elements, also add to this. According to one report, turkeys were second to hens in suffering the highest mortality rates during transport to slaughter. To understand the disregard for the lives of these animals, it is sufficient to note that there exists ‘accepted’ mortality rates expected during transport. Once inside the slaughterhouse, turkeys are shackled to moving rails and moved through a stunning tank, intended to immobilise but not render unconscious. Several accounts have noted that turkeys attempt to escape this by bending their necks, some of which pass through the tank without being stunned. Following stunning, the turkeys’ throats are sliced and they are de-feathered in a scalding tank. Like the stunning tank, however, some birds will not be killed by the blade – it may miss as the line passes at a dizzying speed. These birds then progress to the scalding tank to be boiled alive.