The Human Cost of Eating Turkey This Thanksgiving

As many families plan small Thanksgiving gatherings in the face of a COVID-19 pandemic that is again surging in the United States, the turkey industry is adapting to decreased demand for the large birds often served as the centerpiece meal of the holiday table. 

Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in the nation, found that 43 percent of shoppers plan to celebrate the holiday with only those living in their household, and will likely be looking for alternatives including vegan meats. But major turkey producer Butterball says 75 percent of customers are planning to serve the same size turkey—or larger—this year. Some companies are betting that more people eating at home instead of in restaurants could actually mean more turkeys purchased.

Still, this all amounts to uncertainty, and farmers have already bred and been raising the turkeys who will be slaughtered, so they can only decide what to do next. In October, the Washington Post wrote of the industry’s fears that it may have bred too many big turkeys. Some will likely slaughter birds earlier so they don’t grow as large, some have reduced the amount of food the turkeys are eating, and some may focus more on selling parts of the bird. 

It remains unclear whether there will be culling of turkeys, though in a WATT interview with Dr. Thomas Elam, the President of industry consultancy FarmEcon warned that meat production could need to be scaled back because cases of COVID-19 will likely rise among workers.

So, will there be a turkey to eat this Thanksgiving? The answer is yes, but it could come with a human cost that’s hard to stomach.

COVID-19 Hits the Turkey Industry

On October 19, 40 employees of Northern Pride turkey plant in Minnesota reportedly walked out, demanding that all staff be tested for COVID-19 after three employees tested positive over the period of a week, according to the Grand Forks Herald

Northern Pride CEO Scott Christensen told the Herald that staff members who suspected that they were sick, or had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, were sent home, with the company offering to arrange for testing—but the CEO made it clear, “we are an essential business, and we need to operate.”

Christensen also said staff members were told that operations could not be slowed for the immediate testing requested because “from an animal welfare standpoint,” the company does not want turkeys “sitting out there for an extended period of time” before they are slaughtered.

Director Kayla Jore of the health department for Pennington County and Red Lake County told the Herald that Northern Pride staff were going to be tested last week, but what has reportedly unfolded in this turkey plant is more than just an isolated case of industry workers vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.

Even early in the pandemic, workers in turkey plants across the country began testing positive. In May, a West Liberty Foods plant that furloughed hundreds of workers due to production slowdowns later tweeted that 138 employees at the plant had already been infected with COVID-19.

At a North Carolina Butterball plant in April, more than 50 employees were infected. According to Civil Eats, Butterball staff said they were not protected by the company even after fellow employees became sick, continuing to work alongside them. Civil Eats reported in its May 3 story that neither Butterball nor the state government would confirm how many cases were found, “leaving communities at risk, confused, and demanding transparency.”

The industry is rarely transparent about how and why COVID-19 is breaking out in these facilities in the first place, and its efforts to protect workers have been called into question.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of poultry workers, criticized the industry in April for a “delayed” response to COVID-19 that was “killing America’s essential workers.”

In the union’s statement, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said, “The poultry industry’s response is too little too late for our members. Day after day, we hear reports of our members contracting the COVID-19 virus and even succumbing to it. We won’t stand for that and neither should the giants of the poultry industry.”

One of the Nation’s Most Dangerous Industries

Working in turkey and chicken plants is extremely hazardous. A 2017 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), resulting from data by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), found poultry processing to be one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. 

The industry ranked 12th—higher than the sawmill, auto, and steel industries, among others—in terms of the number of severe injuries reported. According to NELP, out of more than 14,000 companies, big names in meat and poultry—Tyson Foods, JBS, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Cargill—ranked near the top of the list as some of the most dangerous places to work. Tyson was fourth, behind only USPS, Walmart, and UPS.

OSHA’s definition of a severe work-related injury that must be reported to the federal agency, within 24 hours, is “amputation, in-patient hospitalization, or loss of an eye.” Fatalities are to be reported within a period of eight hours.

“For the nation’s poultry workers the job comes with low pay and dangerous conditions,” RWDSU writes. “Inside freezing cold plants, workers stand shoulder to shoulder processing birds at a lightning-fast pace.”

Some poultry plants have been allowed by the USDA to speed up slaughter lines—including ones that have experienced cases of COVID-19. According to NELP, the increase in line speed is “exacerbating risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and injury.”

With the holiday season looming, the industry is preparing for one of its busiest times of the year—this time with the added danger of a deadly virus and a lingering question of just how protected workers will be from exposure, if at all.

Business as Usual This Thanksgiving?

Some holidays are marked with barbecues, but arguably none are more centered around eating meat than Thanksgiving—and turkeys have the unfortunate distinction of being the celebration meal of choice. 

According to the National Turkey Federation (NTF), around 45-46 million turkeys are killed for Thanksgiving alone. Another 22 million become meals at Christmas. 

Turkey meat consumption is at an all-time high—it has almost doubled since 1970, according to the NTF, reaching 5.3 billion pounds consumed in 2019 the U.S.—and the end of the year is a busy time for turkey producers. 

So, the question remains, will the industry forge ahead through the holiday season, despite the increased risk of COVID-19 infection for its workers?

Sentient Media reached out to Butterball for comment about precautions during production for the holiday season, but the company did not respond. In May, responding to concerns voiced by employees after an outbreak of COVID-19 at its Mount Olive plant, Butterball told WITN that social distancing was being practiced “wherever possible” in the facility and that elsewhere “employees are wearing surgical-grade face masks and protective shields to serve as a physical barrier.” 

“We are working closely with the health department to identify anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive and asking those individuals to self-isolate at home for a period of 14 days with pay and benefits. This exceeds the recommendations by the CDC for food processors,” the company added.

Is It Plant-Based Turkey’s Turn?

Sales of meat alternatives, in general, have increased during the pandemic, and more consumers could turn to a vegan main course this Thanksgiving. 

A variety of plant-based turkey options are available from companies such as Gardein, Field Roast, Quorn—and of course Tofurky, which has become synonymous with the vegan turkey, producing its roast since 1995. 

In 2018, Tofurky reached 5 million roasts sold, and holiday sales numbers are looking bright for the company this year.

“We have already seen a 22 percent increase in retail orders leading into the holiday season and are continuing to see sales spike in the conventional marketplace where retailers like Walmart are carrying the roast for the first time, much to the delight of their millennial shoppers,” Jaime Athos, Tofurky CEO, says in a statement to Sentient Media.

Athos believes that this year, shoppers are growing more aware of “the environmental, health, and moral consequences of their food choices,” and points to data released by SPINS in August, concluding that 2 million new consumers were brought into plant-based categories during the pandemic.

This is a market that you might think turkey producers would be hesitant to celebrate, but they want in on meat-free holidays, too. Last year, Reuters reported that industry giants Butterball, Perdue, and Tyson were all exploring options for plant-based turkey.

Consumers are already changing their traditions this holiday season, perhaps missing out on gathering with extended family. But, with a steep cost to be paid by tens of millions of turkeys, and human workers facing long, dangerous hours in factory farm and slaughterhouse conditions conducive to the spread of coronavirus, consumers also face a question that is perhaps more pressing than ever this year: turkey or Tofurky?