In 2012, 18 million turkeys were slaughtered in the UK - with around 10 million killed for the Christmas market. The vast majority of them spend their short lives in vast industrial sheds and never go outside. Don't buy turkey meat. Go vegan with Viva! - or at least make moves in that direction.
Turkeys in their natural state
Turkeys have a zest for living and, treated with respect, they become very friendly. Turkeys have large, dark, almond-shaped eyes and sensitive fine-boned faces. Wild turkeys live in North and Central America - in fact Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird of the US instead of the Bald Eagle. They are striking and handsome, graceful and intelligent. They roost in trees and roam in woodlands, eating vegetation and insects. They live in harems - the mothers being very protective of their young. An adult bird can fly up to 50mph.
Conditions in turkey farms
There are two main systems of turkey rearing:
Turkeys are crammed into sheds in their thousands on British farms. Most of their natural instincts frustrated.
A. Windowless units.
The most common system where as many as 25,000 turkeys are kept in one shed. This makes up around 90 per cent of turkey accommodation in Britain (The UK turkey and geese production industry: a short study, Final report February 2007, Defra). The birds are crowded together like broiler chickens, on a litter floor. At the end of the growing period, as much as 80 per cent of the litter is faeces (Farm Animal Welfare Network, 2008). This results in a build-up of ammonia, causing turkeys to develop ulcerated feet and painful burns on their legs and breasts as they spend their short lives standing on litter which often becomes wet and dirty. Lighting is kept dim to discourage aggression in some cases, since birds become stressed and frustrated in these conditions and can resort to feather plucking and even cannibalism. Low lighting can cause reduced activity levels and result in abnormalities in growth, such as the eyes and legs.
B. Pole barns.
These allow daylight and ventilation but conditions are still grossly overcrowded. Stress causes fighting and birds attack each other's eyes and toes.
Turkeys would live up to 10 years in the wild. Farmed turkeys are usually slaughtered between the ages of 12 and 26 weeks, although according to Defra some are as young as eight weeks.
Hen turkeys are slaughtered between nine and 11 weeks of their lives; stags at 19-21 weeks, although some not until 20-24 weeks; as-hatched turkeys (those who have not been separated according to sex) are slaughtered at 12-14 weeks. (Farm Animal Welfare Network, 2008).
Between five and 15 per cent of turkeys die in sheds each year. Many die because they never learn to reach the food and water points ('starve-outs'). Others die from disease or as a result of growing too quickly. Diseases (discussed below) can lead the mortality rates to skyrocket.
Turkeys peck at each other's feathers, toes and eyes when overcrowded. Sometimes their eyeballs are destroyed by the pecking. Cannibalism can be common in intensive farms. Turkeys are often kept in near darkness to discourage cannibalism. In the wild, turkeys would not be aggressive but on factory farms birds are driven to aggression by the conditions in which they are kept.
Although some debeaking is practiced on British farms, premature death and cannibalism are still common.
Debeaking is considered to be an essential aid to management (Defra 2007). Ten per cent of all turkeys are debeaked (FAWC, 2005). When turkeys are only a few days old, their beaks are partially amputated, a section of the upper beak being cut off with a red-hot blade or with clippers. Beak trimming is painful and can result in permanent pain. Research at the AFRC Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research, Edinburgh, indicates that debeaking results in chronic pain similar to 'phantom limb pain' in human amputees. Birds have been observed, over a 56 week period, to show signs of behaviour associated with long-term chronic pain and depression, following partial beak amputation. ("Behavioral Evidence for Persistent Pain Following Partial Beak Amputation in Chickens" - Michael Gentle et al, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27 (1990) 149-157).
Some beak trimmed turkeys were found to have lower body weights than those who had not been trimmed, suggesting that weight loss was caused due to pain associated with eating. (Welfare of Turkeys, P.M Hocking, Roslin Institute).
In 2010, the Government dropped plans to outlaw debeaking in 2011. It is expected that this will not be revisited until at least 2015. Again, financial concerns and concerns for welfare (namely cannibalism and other injury which are the direct result of highly intensive and unnatural conditions of today's factory farms) led to the decision. This, despite successful bans in other countries in Europe (including Sweden, Norway and Finland).
Toe removal is also performed on male breeding birds which can result in open wounds, blood loss and pain.
Desnooding is practiced to minimalise cannibalism. This is where the long fleshy appendage extending from the front of a turkey's head over its upper back is removed with an instrument or pulled off.
When farmers want to prevent turkeys from flying, dewinging is carried out where the flight feathers of one wing may be clipped.
The abuse of turkeys in intensive systems has been recorded by several animal welfare groups.
Viva! secretly filmed inside Bernard Matthews' turkey sheds three years in a row. Footage showed lame and injured birds as well as piles of dead birds, apparently suffering from skin and foot damage caused by conditions within the sheds. We claimed that these consistently poor standards are due to a combination of corporate avarice and the almost total absence of legal protection for turkeys in the UK.
In 2006, filming by the Hillside Animal Sanctuary revealed catchers in a Bernard Matthews' Farm playing baseball with live turkeys. These men were prosecuted, but such activity goes on behind closed doors. In 2007, the sanctuary again obtained footage of Bernard Matthews' employees kicking turkeys as they were being rounded up for slaughter (Farm Animal Welfare Network, 2008).
In 2008, Viva! filmed at farm that supplied the RSPCA's Freedom Foods with turkeys. Many had leg deformities and injuries, with some birds demonstrating difficulty walking. Others had facial injuries including bloody, wounded snoods.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) have also exposed turkey farmers in the US of committing terrible abuses against turkeys in intensive systems, as found in the UK. Undercover footage shows that workers kicked, stomped and punched the turkeys, as well as unlawful killing and shoving faeces and even broom handles down their throats, among other horrific abuses.
UK slaughter legislation states that birds may be killed by decapitation or dislocation of the neck. These procedures do not require a license provided that they are carried out on premises forming part of an agricultural holding on which the bird was reared.
Decapitation is not widely practiced but neck dislocation is the most widely used method of slaughter on small-scale enterprises. Scientists Gregory and Wotton expressed concern about the effectiveness of neck dislocation in poultry. They tried crushing and stretching the necks of poultry (method 2 works in a similar manner to manual neck dislocation) and concluded that, "neither method consistently produced concussion and it is uncertain whether they cause instantaneous unconsciousness."
(N. G. Gregory, S. B. Wotton, 1990. Comparison of neck dislocation and percussion of the head on visual evoked responses in the chicken's brain. The Veterinary Record 126, 570-572).
Researcher Roger McCamley says that, "There is certainly a potential for welfare problems to arise when small scale seasonal producers kill large birds by neck dislocation. Usually, no training will have been sought or received and because of the small number and infrequency of slaughtering, little expertise in slaughter will be obtained."
(R. McCamley, 1992. The welfare aspects of poultry slaughter on farms. The Meat Hygienist, December edition, 5-11).
If turkeys are not killed on the farm at which they are reared, they are transported live to a processing plant. Turkeys are caught from the rearing sheds and stuffed into crates for transportation to the slaughterhouse. Rough handling often causes severe bruising and injury. At the slaughterhouse the birds are hung upside down with their feet in shackles for up to three minutes before they are stunned (DEFRA, 2007). Birds are in great distress at this time, especially those with diseased hip joints or legs.
The shackled turkeys move to an electrically-charged water bath through which their heads and necks pass. The electric shock is meant to stun the birds. Turkeys tend to arch their necks at slaughter and may not be stunned before they reach the neck cutter. Each year, conservative estimates suggest that around 30-40,000 will enter the scalding tank alive. Around 43 per cent of birds will receive painful electric shocks before being stunned because their wings touch the electrically-charged waterbath
Slaughter figures suggest that turkey consumption has decreased in the UK. In 1997 there were 40 million turkeys slaughtered; in 2004 over 21 million and in 2010, 16 million.
Official figures show that turkey production and consumption is set to decline in the UK through 2012 (Gain Report, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, 2011). Between 2010 and 2012 (projected figures) production is expected to have reduced by 12,000 metric tonnes in Britain. Consumption is also projected to have reduced by 10,000 metric tonnes between 2010 and 2012.
It is worth keeping in mind that chicken (broiler) meat consumption is increasing as it is cheaper than turkey and other types of meat. However, this decrease is also largely due to consumers rejecting meat and following plant-based diet instead.
As with all factory farming, the production of turkey meat is incredibly wasteful. For every pound of turkey meat produced it takes two-and-a-half pounds of grain (China's appetite for meat puts £10 on the cost of your Christmas turkey, Daily Mail, 2011). A staggering 1,166 tonnes of feed would be used to raise one shed of 25,000 birds (if killed at 20 weeks) (Turkeys are not just for Christmas, Farmers Guardian, 2011).
Only a few breeding companies now supply most turkeys reared worldwide - British United Turkeys, Nicholas and Hybrid Turkeys. Reproduction in today's turkey industry is by artificial insemination (AI). The modern turkey, like the broiler chicken, has been genetically selected to put on weight twice as fast as its counterpart in the wild. Now, male turkeys are too broad-breasted to mate naturally. In the wild, the turkey can fly up to speeds of 50mph, yet the modern male farmed variety cannot fly. Breeding turkeys can weigh as much as an 8-9 year old child (60lbs). It is now common practice impregnate a significantly smaller hen from one strain with a large stag on the never-ending quest to produce larger birds. In the UK, there are approximately 250,000 'parent stock' on around 40 farms (Defra 2007).
Collecting the semen
Two or three times a week the males are 'milked' of their semen by teams of operators whose jobs are to manipulate the males' anal area until the phallus is erect (a form of human-to-bird masturbation) and semen is ejected, helped along by the pressure on the lower abdomen.
Insemination of the females
Female turkeys are caught and held upside down, while semen is introduced into the vagina by hypodermic syringe or the operator's breath pressure, through a length of tubing. This process is called 'cracking'. The repeated stress imposed by AI is extreme and unacceptable in welfare terms and can lead to injury of the birds if performed incorrectly.
Eggs and chicks
All factory farmed turkeys never meet their mothers. Whereas, naturally, the mother turkey would communicate with her chicks while they are in the egg and following their birth. In intensive turkey farming, however, fertile eggs are transferred to the hatchery. This means that the chicks are denied their natural start in life.
After 28 days in an incubating cabinet the poults are hatched. At a day old the turkey chicks are transported to growing sheds with up to 25,000 chicks the same age. The lighting is dim and the heat is kept permanently high. Many chicks die from heat, stress, heart attack, bullying, or starving to death since many are unable to find the food and water points without the guidance of their mothers.
Although some debeaking is practiced on British farms, premature death and cannibalism are still common.<
The mortality rate is between 22-66 per cent in male breeding turkeys, with lameness and abnormal gaits found in 75 per cent of stags and degenerative hip disease in 90 per cent of breeder males (Turkeys industry magazine, 1992).
The last decade has thrown up numerous examples of new diseases in turkeys. These include Rhinotracheitis, Paramyxovirus 2, and Salmonella enteritidis - a major new bacterial source of human food poisoning that can cause arthritis, blood disease, impaired immunity and death.
Other diseases include Blackhead disease, Ornithobacterium rhinotracheale and most recently Avian Influenza, H5NI or Bird Flu. Routine use of antibiotics to combat the filthy and unhygienic conditions on factory farms is leading to the immunity of viruses against antibiotics, which causes the mutation of viruses. Turkeys kept in intensive systems have weakened immune systems, which encourages the spread of infection. This is posing a serious threat not only to the birds themselves, but also to humans as a strain of the virus is likely to mutate into a human form of the disease. In February 2007, an outbreak of H5NI occurred on a Bernard Matthews turkey farm, the most likely source being its imported meat from Hungary. The virus can live for over a month in cold weather and outside live birds, such as in faeces.
Avian metapneumovirus infection (TRT) is highly prevalent in turkeys in the UK and is the most common cause of viral disease in turkeys, predisposing turkeys to other diseases such as E.coli and Ornithobacterium rhinotrachaeli. Defra states that using vaccines against TRT is not always effective (Defra, 2007).
An active ingredient in some of the antibiotics (including Baytril 10 per cent Oral Solution) given to turkeys is enrofloxacin, which is a form of fluoroquinolone. The use of this substance has been banned in poultry production in the US, yet continues to be used in the UK. It is added to the drinking water of turkeys. When questioned by the Farm Animal Welfare Network, the US Food and Drugs Administration's Centre for Veterinary Medicine stated that the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry "causes the development of fluoroquinolone-resistant Camplyobacter, a pathogen to humans, in poultry", which is "a hazard to human health" (Farm Animal Network, 2008). Campylobacter is a major cause of food poisoning in humans who have handled raw meat or cooked it insufficiently. Many people suffer from prolonged illnesses, causing hospitalisation, seizures and pseudo-appendicitis (M.B Skirrow Campylobacter enteritis - the first five years J. Hyg. Camb 1982)
Turkeys are reared to be pathalogically obese. They have clogged coronary vessels, distended fluid-filled pericardial sac, abdominal fluid and a gelatin-covered enlarged congested liver. Their hearts can actually explode.
Artificial insemination spreads fowl cholera, a major bacterial disease of intensively reared turkeys.
References available on request.
Throughout their lives, turkeys may be given antibiotics and other drugs to prevent or treat infections caused by worms, fungi, bacteria and other microbes. More than a dozen antibiotics are approved for use in chickens and turkeys, including erythromycin, penicillin, tetracycline and virginiamycin.