Is Turkey Safe? Why It Matters How Turkeys Are Bred and Raised
Gobbling the Gobble Gobble
People have celebrated Thanksgiving for centuries; however, the feasts shared today differ drastically from the delicacies enjoyed in the past, even when compared to just a few generations ago. Thanks to ever changing and advancing agricultural practices and the continual genetic modification of both animals and plants, the corn we eat now is more tender, the potatoes starchier, and the turkey and ham much larger than those that graced our father’s father’s table.
While the history and outcome of all of these changes is fascinating, for the moment let’s narrow our focus solely to the turkey. The broad-breasted white, the favorite of modern consumers who want a large yield of lean white meat, is a far cry from its distant wild Heritage turkey ancestors. (Heritage turkeys are still raised by some farming operations, but have a higher ratio of dark meat, grow more slowly, and are ultimately smaller). And, as we know, where profit is concerned, farmers also want the most bang for their buck, and so aim for the biggest birds that will be marketable in the shortest period of time, and, additionally, consume the least amount of feed to get there. Enter the super-sized broad-breasted white…available at virtually every grocery store. A bird, one could argue, that is a monstrous distortion of what it should be, and once was.
Then and Now: Changes in the Turkey
The typical turkey weighed just over 13 pounds back in 1929; today’s turkey weighs, on average, over 30 pounds for an increase of over 100% (Madrigal, Alexis., 2008). They reach this weight, or heavier, in around 4 months (Lewis, Ricki., 2015). While this is great news to the typical shopper in search of a hearty, lean addition to his or her festive meal and to the farmer who pockets a profit, the fact remains that this is a lot of change in less than 100 years, especially from an evolutionary standpoint. Consequently, man’s interference has had a drastically detrimental effect on the turkey’s quality of life.
Likely due to the concentration of traits bred into them that favor rapid growth, turkeys can no longer regulate how much food they consume and readily reach levels of what should be considered obesity, but what those in the poultry business consider instead to be an ideal marketable size. Their weight struggles contribute to severe increases in mortality; they have an expected lifespan of a mere 2 years, compared to the over-a-decade-long expectation enjoyed by their smaller, wilder relatives (Hall, Katie., 2012). A look at presidentially pardoned turkeys offers a glimpse into just how unhealthy they truly are: More than half of turkeys pardoned from 2005 to 2009 died within a year, and one turkey died the day after the ceremony (2012). Many, although they escape slaughter, never survive a second Thanksgiving.
A Sad Life
Broad-breasted whites can no longer perform the most simple and natural behaviors of their wild ancestors. They cannot fly, as their chests have expanded to such a degree that render the mechanics of flight impossible (Palmer, Brian, 2013). As they grow, they frequently develop difficulty walking or even standing. Their fast expansion may also lead to skeletal deformities, skeletal and heart muscle cell death, and leg collapse (Lewis, Ricki., 2015). It is believed that because their meat grows at such a fast and unsustainable rate that the rest of them cannot compensate accordingly (Hall, Katie., 2012). As they can hardly function on the most basic of levels it should come as no surprise that these commercially-produced turkeys are exclusively created through artificial insemination and can no longer naturally reproduce.
Unfortunately, artificial insemination has only made intensive genetic selection easier for those in the industry, who can now create many more offspring from an “ideal” male tom than could be created naturally. This spreads his favorable genes far and wide within future turkey generations. But the result s have not all been predictable. In ways not necessarily understood, certain beneficial genes have instead disappeared as a result of genetic modification.
The Safety of Eating Turkey
Scientists have discovered the eradication of a gene in the modern broad-breasted white that gives immunity to aflatoxin poisoning (which causes liver cancer in humans) (Lewis, Ricki., 2015). This immunity still exists in wilder turkey lineages. Additional diseases that can be passed from turkeys to us include Newcastle disease, Chlamydia psittaci, tuberculosis, lice, worms, and mites (2015). If the turkey’s immunity is further compromised genetically, we may become susceptible to a likely even longer list of diseases in the future. Coupled with this, there are environmental factors which also negatively impact overall bird immunity: the heavy and routine use of antibiotics.
There is absolutely no record keeping on behalf of the USDA on antibiotics that are given to the birds before they are consumed (Barclay, Eliza., 2013). They may be purchased and used as they should be to help sick birds or else solely as a type of disease prevention; it is impossible for outsiders to know. Continual and low dose disease prevention via this method is virtually a type of unethical drug abuse that may lead to “super bugs” that could not only wreak havoc on the health of turkeys but also on us, as they will have developed a resistance to the antibiotics they were continually exposed to (2013). Considering the amount of diseases turkeys may pass on to us, this is no small issue.
Further compounding this problem, antibiotic residue may also remain in the meat carved up for that fabulous turkey dinner. The reason why it is legal to use antibiotics on turkeys not only to fight sickness but also continually and over long periods of time on healthy disease-free animals is for the sake of increasing “feed efficiency,” a use approved by the USDA. Animals given antibiotics to prevent any slight malaise even before it occurs do not expend precious energy fighting anything off should they be exposed to pathogens in the future…and can instead devote all their resources to growing….the farmer’s ultimate goal. As mentioned previously, bigger birds in less time leads to more profit.
The USDA does require a waiting period between antibiotic administration and slaughter, as well as routinely sample meats on their way to the marketplace. However, they have found evidence of antibiotics present in meat that was marketed as antibiotic-free, such as Diestel Turkey Ranch meat (Goldberg, Michael, 2017). Not only were antibiotics present, but some of them that were used are flat-out illegal and believed to be potentially dangerous hallucinogens or contribute to such things as the development of anemia in humans (2017). This is quite alarming. More alarming still is that the Diestel Turkey Ranch brand was also branding itself as a “free range” and “humane” turkey haven type operation…and is currently being sued for being an “agro-industrial operation” instead (2017). Regulations and their oversight may not be making the cut to protect the turkey or the consumer.
How Turkeys are Raised and Slaughtered in Factory Farms
As if all of this information wasn’t enough to make us think twice about enjoying our next Thanksgiving meal guilt-free, there are important facts to consider about how turkeys are handled in factory farm settings as well. Turkeys often endure constant overcrowding. Feather picking, stampeding, and cannibalism are avoided through the common and painful processes of beak and toe trimming. Both beaks and toes are cut without any requirement of anesthesia. Bumblefoot develops as turkeys step on hard wire flooring which cuts into their feet, pressed down by the weight of their abnormally large upper bodies, and leads to infection. The feed that they are given, which may include genetically modified corn and soy products, may also lack key nutrition and result in weakened bones and abnormally large hocks (Lewis, Ricki., 2015).
Turkeys lack protection under federal guidelines (they are excluded from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act) that cover other animals such as cows and pigs when it comes to their slaughter as well. They may be hung upside-down by their small ankles with their immense weight pulling against them. The mechanism responsible for shocking them and dulling their perception of pain has been known to fail (LA Times, 2017). Additionally, at times the blade that slits their throats may miss its mark, essentially leaving the birds to be scorched to death during the de-feathering process (LA Times, 2017.
Baby turkeys are not immune to a cruel death, either: Video has surfaced in which newly hatched poults were suffocated or ground into pieces, alive; practices approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and considered justified because young birds will any type of deformity will likely be injured or killed by the others (Mohan, Geoffrey, 2015). However, the reason turkeys attack each other is linked to an inability to forage, an imbalanced diet, overcrowded conditions, and the lack of attention paid to their social practices or group hierarchy while housed in commercial operations (Dalton, Hillary & Wood, Ben & Torrey, Stephanie, 2013). Again, the fault is ours.
There are several issues negatively impacting the broad-breasted white turkey that you were likely unaware of when you served one up for your last Thanksgiving feast. These poor birds have been so drastically altered that their health and well-being have suffered a devastating blow. They are often mistreated in factory farms from hatching until slaughter. Fortunately, there are free range and antibiotic free options available (hopefully manufactured by more reputable companies than Diestel Turkey) that should help ensure that the turkeys enjoy a higher quality of life.
Additionally, Heritage turkeys are still available for purchase. These birds lack the deformities that plague their monstrously misshapen descendants and do not suffer as the broad-breasted whites do. Although smaller, during blind taste testing they invariably score superior marks for taste and quality. Next Thanksgiving, the choice is yours.
Further Turkey Facts
1. William Burrows and Joseph Quinn developed the process of artificial insemination of both the chicken and the turkey back in 1939 while working on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture. They even attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to create the world’s first chicken-turkey crosses. By the 1960s, the process became commonplace and the creation of the large white-breasted turkeys that dominate the modern marketplace was begun (Madrigal, Alexis. C., 2013).
2. How do we know that it is turkey genetics and not improved feed that has caused such great gains in the turkey’s weight and composition? In 2007 scientists took turkeys that had been unmodified genetically since 1966 and the most modern and highly modified breeds and fed them the exact same diet. The first group averaged a final weight of 21 pounds; the second weighed in at almost twice that at 39 (2013). It is clearly genetics, and not environmental factors, that are driving these changes.
Barclay, Eliza. 2013. Did Your Thanksgiving Turkey Take Any Antibiotics? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/11/26/247377377/did-your-thanksgiving-turkey-take-any-antibiotics
Dalton, Hillary & Wood, Ben & Torrey, Stephanie. (2013). Injurious pecking in domestic turkeys: Development, causes, and potential solutions. World's Poultry Science Journal. 69. 865 - 876. 10.1017/S004393391300086X.
Goldberg, Michael. 2017. Residue of prohibited antibiotic reported in Diestel Turkey-USDA. Retrieved from
Hall, Katie. 2012. Pardoned Turkey Peace Dies Just Before Thanksgiving. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/pardoned-turkeys Pounlty Industry Misleads the Public About the Humaneness of Slaughter -life-after_n_2158771.html
Jones, Dena. 2015. Poultry Industry Misleads the Public About the Humaneness of Slaughter. Retrieved from http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/04/poultry-industry-misleads-the-public-about-the-humaneness-of-slaughter/#.Wt5hxojwaM8
LA Times, 2017. There’s a grim reality behind your Thanksgiving turkey. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-turkey-slaughter-20171122-story.html
Lewis, Ricki., 2015. Turkey Genetics 101. Retrieved from http://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2015/11/26/turkey-genetics-101/
Madrigal, Alexis., 2008. Give Thanks? Science Supersized Your Turkey Dinner. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2008/11/turkeytech/all/
Madrigal, Alexis. C., 2013. The Supersized American Turkey. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/the-supersized-american-turkey/281843/
Mohan, Geoffrey (2015). Undercover video sheds light on turkey slaughter. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-animal-abuse-turkeys-20150622-story.html
Palmer, Brian, 2013. In Its Wild Form That Funny Looking Turkey Can Fly. Though It Won’t Get Very Far. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/in-its-wild-form-that-funny-looking-turkey-can-fly-though-it-wont-get-very-far/2013/11/22/2163374e-4fdf-11e3-9e2c-e1d01116fd98_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.252dc7bb9ee0