Historians are still unsure if turkey meat was served at the First Thanksgiving, but nonetheless, these affectionate and social birds have been considered a Thanksgiving staple for centuries.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that nearly 224 million turkeys are killed each year. Of those about 45 million are killed for Thanksgiving meals, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Domestic turkeys, the ones you find in supermarkets for Thanksgiving, can live for up to 10 years. These oversized turkeys are not bred to live long-term; they are slaughtered at around five months old.
Modern domestic turkeys are selectively bred to produce more meat and grow so big that they cannot perform normal functions like walking and breathing properly. These birds cannot even mate on their own and are forcibly artificially inseminated. Today, turkeys are twice the size of turkeys from less than one hundred years ago.
Turkeys endure immense suffering, physically and mentally, before ending up on a platter. They are stripped of their natural environments, treated poorly, and slaughtered in horrific ways.
Here are 10 reasons why you should not eat turkey this Thanksgiving:
1. Turkeys Have Unique Personalities
Turkeys form strong bonds with their flockmates and even with humans and other animals. They enjoy playing with round objects they can kick and roll and are naturally very curious. Similar to humans, turkeys can recognize each other based on their own unique calls.
Unlike the turkey featured in the video above, commercial turkeys never get the opportunity to spread their wings, run around in the grass or live out their lives naturally. These birds are forced to live in dark, overcrowded buildings before they are ultimately slaughtered.
2. Turkeys Are Kept In Poor Conditions
In the wild, turkeys love to forage, build nests, and roam around their natural territories, which often stretch over 1,000 acres. Domestic turkeys bred for meat, on the other hand, are forced to live in cramped conditions inside dark sheds with nowhere to roam, forage or build a nest.
Due to the high-stress environments in which young turkeys live, aggressive behavior is common. But instead of raising turkeys in less crowded conditions, farmers reduce the risk of turkey-inflicted injury by searing off their beaks, cutting off their toes, and slicing off their snoods — the red dangling skin that hangs over a turkey’s beak — without anesthetics.
Turkeys are also packed into dark buildings with dim artificial lighting by the hundreds, even thousands. Instead of grass, these birds — who can still be labeled “cage-free” — stomp on concrete or straw within the buildings. Those who are not “lucky” enough to be cage-free are confined to wire enclosures until they are slaughtered.
Conditions inside factory farms are cramped, stressful and filthy. Infections are common since thousands of birds are packed into one common living space without proper care. Some turkeys suffer from skin infections after being pecked by other birds, which is a common behavior on industrial farms.
Often the large buildings housing the turkeys are not properly cleaned, so birds are forced to live in their own excrement. As a result, ammonia levels rise and birds can develop painful burns and lesions on their feet and legs. The ammonia can also negatively impact turkeys’ respiratory health. Excessive ammonia exposure can also cause hemorrhaging in the birds’ tracheas and bronchi as well as the thickening of atrial walls and shrinking of air capillaries in their lungs.
Most American turkeys are given antibiotics to reduce the risk of spreading salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, E. coli and other bacteria to humans. Yet drug-resistant strains of these bacteria are infecting people around the country.
3. Turkey Meat Recalls
Turkey meat recalls are not uncommon, despite the excessive use of antibiotics by farmers. In March of 2019, the popular turkey producer Butterball recalled nearly 80,000 pounds of raw ground turkey products due to a salmonella outbreak. A few months prior, in December of 2018, turkey producer Jennie-O recalled approximately 164,210 pounds of raw ground turkey for the same reason. In November of 2018, just weeks before Thanksgiving, Jennie-O had recalled another 91,388 pounds of raw ground turkey products. Some 300,000 pounds of turkey products were also recalled for salmonella contamination in just four months from two major producers.
The November 2018 recall of Jennie-O turkey products resulted in one fatality, 133 hospitalizations and 358 individual cases of salmonella across 42 states. As antibiotic-resistant bacteria gets stronger, more human lives will be endangered.
4. Inhumane Slaughter Methods
Over 200 million turkeys are slaughtered each year in the United States, and 99 percent of them are raised on factory farms. Inside these large industrialized buildings, up to 10,000 turkeys are crammed into a single barn. Most industrialized farming operations hold around 55,000 turkeys at a time.
A guide from the Humane Slaughter Association provides step-by-step instructions on how to slaughter animals “humanely.” Below, you will see something called a “killing cone” which is used to keep animals from squirming too much while they are being slaughtered.
Electrical stunning is often used to render the birds unconscious before slaughter, which can cause some animals to respond with “epileptic-like fits.” The handbook suggests “electrodes should be applied for a minimum of seven seconds and at least until wing-flapping stops.” In order to ensure unconsciousness, farmers are encouraged to touch the birds’ corneas to see if they react or not. If they do, another round of electricity should be applied.
Other terms appear in the “humane handbook” including neck cutting, dislocation, gas killing and concussion stunning. Concussion stunning “involves the application of a severe blow to the skull to cause immediate unconsciousness, or, if sufficient force is applied, death. This must be followed by neck cutting or neck dislocation to ensure the death of the bird.”
The most common form of stunning within American factory farms is called electric immobilization. This method consists of shackling live turkeys by their ankles, which requires force that usually breaks their delicate bones, and running them along a conveyor belt into electrically charged water. This water is supposed to render them unconscious, but the electrical currents are often too low, meaning turkeys are fully conscious while getting their throats slit by a rotating blade. Sometimes turkeys miss the blade, which results in dumping them into scalding hot water tanks which are used to loosen their feathers for defeathering.
The Humane Slaughter Act was passed by the USDA Food Safety and Inspections Service (FSIS) branch in 1978 to require “humane” handling of animals before and during slaughter. This act does not apply to turkeys or chickens. Poultry birds and factory-farmed animals, in general, have virtually zero legal protections.
5. Dismal Working Conditions on Turkey Farms
In industrial agriculture, expectations are high to work quickly and process as much meat, milk or eggs as possible. When production speeds are increased, animals are not the only ones who are injured; the physical and mental health of workers is often compromised.
In 2018, the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism compiled data from U.S. meat plant workers and found that “amputations, fractured fingers, second-degree burns and head trauma” are among the potential injuries workers face every day. Records gathered from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) showed that on average, 17 severe accidents — meaning workers were hospitalized, lost an eye, or needed an amputation — occur each month at slaughterhouses and animal exploitation facilities around the country.
According to the data, amputations occur twice per week, on average. From 2015-2017, 270 incidents were documented which involved the amputation of fingers or fingertips, hands, arms, or toes. When production speeds are at the top of the priorities list, workers are bound to get hurt. Increased production pressures negatively impact the animals as well, since courtesy goes out the window as workers are expected to process hundreds of birds per day.
Jessica Robertson and another USDA inspector, Tina McClellan, confided in each other after experiencing itchy eyes, shortness of breath, coughing fits, bloody noses, headaches, nausea, and respiratory issues. Other workers at the plant reassured Robertson that they too were experiencing the same issues.
6. Health Risks of Eating Turkey
Turkey production, especially in factory farms, drives the use of antibiotics and risk of pandemic outbreak due to diseases like avian flu, which continue to spread. Continuously feeding birds low-doses of antibiotics for growth promotion and bacteria reduction can lead to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans. When that happens, harmful bacteria that were once treatable can cause serious illness and even death. Yet it is difficult to uncover the exact amount of antibiotics used in turkey production because the government does not collect such data on antibiotic sales or use, and the industry often keeps this information hidden.
7. Turkeys Are Loving Mothers
Turkeys form immediate bonds with their young, much like humans. Once their eggs are soon to be hatched, mother turkeys will not leave the nest under any circumstances. When the babies are born, turkey moms keep them close by under their wings until they are old enough to forage on their own.
Some baby birds, like raptors and songbirds, wait in the nest while their mothers forage for food, but it is unusual for turkey mothers and their babies, called poults, to be apart. Poults will panic if separated from their mothers for too long, and cry out until she finds them. These babies snuggle under their mothers’ wings for comfort and shelter throughout the day and sleep under them at night.
8. Turkeys Are Affectionate
Turkeys enjoy being snuggled and stroked just like the companion animals we know and love. They will even purr as a sign of contentment. These affectionate birds enjoy being embraced and will fall asleep while being caressed.
9. Turkeys Are Smart
People often believe turkeys are unintelligent. This is due to the myth that they are so “dumb” they will stare at the rain until they drown. Domestication, selective breeding, and often inbreeding cause modern turkeys to suffer from a genetic condition called tetanic torticollar spasms.
This condition causes turkeys to rear back their heads in an upward position anywhere from a few seconds to over one minute. It is unclear if any turkeys have actually drowned from “staring at the rain,” but if they have, they were actually suffering from a spasm. These unfortunate instances do not reflect the species’ intelligence.
Tom Savage, poultry scientist and animal science professor at Oregon State University states, “It’s an example of how a misunderstood animal behavior becomes identified as proof that the animal is extremely lacking in intelligence.”
Turkeys are actually much more intelligent than they get credit for. They are social birds who possess over 30 vocalizations to communicate with each other. They can actually recognize each other based on their unique voices.
Turkeys travel in flocks, and if one strays away from the group, they will be stressed and continue calling out until reunited. When content, turkeys will purr or cluck excitedly.
Wild turkeys are exceptional land navigators. Their natural territories often stretch over 1,000 acres and they can recall and find feeding locations from years prior. Turkeys also can remember human faces.
10. Delicious Turkey Alternatives Exist
Plant-based turkey alternatives have rapidly improved over the past few years. More and more companies are popping up and Pinterest boards are overflowing with original recipes.
Plant-based turkey brands like Tofurky, Gardein, Quorn and Field Roast can be found in most large grocery stores. The Internet is flooded with simple turkey alternative recipes as well as side dish recipes.
Traditional side dishes can also be made with plant-based milk and butter.
The Bottom Line
Turkeys are incredibly curious, inquisitive and social birds. Yet at least 224 million of these birds are killed in the United States alone each year, with upwards of 45 million slaughtered for Thanksgiving alone.
Taylor Meek is the community manager and a contributing author at Sentient Media. She oversees all social media content and strategy and manages the social media team and Social Media Fellowship program.