Rethinking turkey day

It’s time to explore more healthful and humane alternatives to factory-farmed birds

Free-range, organic turkeys.

Free-range, organic turkeys.

Photo By pat kehler Thinkstock

Twenty turkeys living at an animal-rescue center in Orland probably don’t realize how lucky they are on Thanksgiving, a day when more than 100 million turkeys will be eaten in households across America.

The Orland Farm Sanctuary’s birds roam freely over the property and receive several hundred visitors throughout the year, especially in early November when the sanctuary hosts its annual Celebration for the Turkeys event, when the turkeys are the ones who get to enjoy a holiday feast.

Bruce Friedrich, Farm Sanctuary’s senior advocacy director, concedes that his organization’s goal is not to rescue every suffering animal but, rather, to have the animals on-site serve as ambassadors for their kind.

But compassion for animals often comes too little too late in a country that consumed 9 billion livestock animals in 2012. Indeed, it may seem to many animal-rights lobbyists that Americans are ethically conflicted. A 2008 poll by the consumer-research group Gallup found that 97 percent of Americans oppose animal cruelty. Barely 5 percent of the nation’s residents, however, have cut meat entirely from their diets.

“People would recoil at the thought of slaughtering and eating their dog or cat, but we don’t think the same way about turkeys, pigs, cows or chickens,” said Friedrich. He notes that turkeys can be as personable and as individually charismatic as the animals many of us keep as pets.

Yet Americans will eat roughly 250 million turkeys this year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many of these birds are reared in painfully cramped and dirty conditions on massive factory farms. When the birds are only days old, their beaks are sliced off, and they spend the coming months growing to market size. They are fed a meal of corn and soybeans, may receive heavy doses of antibiotics and are sometimes injected with saltwater to soften their flesh.

Moreover, years of selective breeding has transformed the American broad-breasted white turkey into a freak of factory-farming.

“They have been genetically selected to grow extraordinarily obese in an extraordinarily short time,” said Paul Shapiro, with the Humane Society of the United States. The great size of the broad-breasted white causes chronic pain and skeletal damage, Shapiro says. The animals are so clumsy and oversized, too, that they cannot mate and must be artificially inseminated.

Shapiro and Friedrich, and the groups they represent, want to see an end to animal suffering, and for them, turkeys advertised as ethically or humanely raised represent only a small step forward.

To Topher Dalton, however, this small subindustry represents progress. Dalton has been the grocery manager at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative for the past 15 years. He says interest in eating ethically raised meats seems to have increased. His store sells only organic, small-farm turkeys, and this year’s supply sold out well over a week before Thanksgiving. These birds, Dalton said, were all organically grown turkeys from Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora, whose turkeys wear the retail label of Heidi’s Hens. In the past, Chico Natural Foods has carried organic Mary’s Free Range Turkey, as well.

“These are two of the most sustainably, humanely raised turkeys available in the quantities we need,” Dalton said.

Nationwide, total meat consumption is declining, according to the USDA. Yet the United States still consumes more meat per capita than any other country in the world.

Much of this meat is raised with the help of antibiotics, and this has become a topic of concern. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports tested 257 samples of ground turkey meat for five species of potentially deadly bacteria. The testing found at least one of the microorganisms on 90 percent of the samples. While livestock animals are treated with antibiotics to eliminate such dangerous bacteria, food-safety-watchdog groups suspect that overuse of antibiotics is building up bacterial resistance to these medications.

Thus, eating organically farmed turkeys may bode well for human health. However, Shapiro at the Humane Society of United States notes that “organic” or “antibiotic-free” are not indications of humane growing conditions.

Friedrich at Farm Sanctuary is also thinking about the turkeys themselves.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” he said. “I believe that more and more people will choose eventually to leave animals completely off their dinner plates.”