The Compost Bin: Not all Turkeys are Pardoned

by Laura Meloney

Phyllis turned to look at Thom and questioned how they got into the current situation. Together they stood crammed into a small living space with hundreds of others. It had all happened so fast . . . Phyllis had thought they were in the clear, but while running they were quickly snatched up by somebody much larger. Then it was dark and their minds were put to a quiet rest. When she woke, Phyllis’s immediate reaction was concern for Thom. Where was he? But the dim lighting made it impossible to distinguish objects from beings. It was so difficult to move around that Phyllis had to shout out for Thom. When she found him, the sight of his newly disfigured mouth horrified her. He had been severely beaten and mutilated in the transportation process.

This awful experience occurred no more than three weeks ago and things have not been improving for Phyllis and Thom. Ever since then Phyllis, Thom, and all the others have been kept in the tightly packed, dimly lit environment, sharing the same space in which they defecate. They’ve been forced to overeat nothing but the same meal- the food is never fresh and it tastes much like chemically infused cardboard. It seems that every week they are injected with an unknown medication, likely a compilation of many antibiotics and growth hormones, leaving them feeling ill and violated. In addition, both Thom and Phyllis have witnessed gruesome abuse endured by their friends and others living in the containment – everything from strangulation, compulsive beatings, beheadings, and other inhuman ways to kill.

On a day-to-day basis, Phyllis vacillates between fears of catching a lingering viral infection, falling ill and dying, or being taken away by one of people in charge to never return. Either way, each results in suffering and, consequently, death . . . neither of which Phyllis is prepared for.

Sooo, wait a second . . . where is this all transpiring? A secret prison camp somewhere abroad? No, truthfully, we’re in the United States, on an industrial turkey farm. Here’s a bit more gravy on the turkey, and mind you, it isn’t all bad: According to the United States Department of Agriculture the annual production of turkey matches to about a bird per person; meaning roughly 300 million turkeys are raised each year for consumption. That’s over seven million pounds of turkey meat annually!

While the anecdote above portrays nearly the worst of the worst, there are a number of poultry and turkey farms to be commended for animal respect. The types of production systems that exist, industrial (sometimes termed conventional), pole-barn, and free-range, vary widely in housing, feed, medical treatments, and number of turkeys raised.

Industrial farms’ production of turkeys, including the infamous concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs), are largely thought of as turkey assembly stations. Here, over 25,000 birds can be contained between several houses. The majority are kept in windowless buildings with environmental control systems such as heating, ventilation, and lighting.

Industrial farms have an “all in/all out” stocking policy, which helps control spacing issues and prevents diseases being passed from one group of birds to another. However, it’s no surprise that the close proximity of living conditions leads to exponential losses when outbreaks do occur. In addition, reported outbreaks of avian flu on turkey farms have startled public health officials about the spread of the virus. Industrial turkey farms grow their birds to a maximum size using fed loaded with amino acids and vitamins. Picture one from a 2007 BBC News report shows the life cycle of a turkey; they are usually slaughtered after 12 weeks of concentrated feeding. Industrial-raised turkeys are given a broad-spectrum antibiotic regime, often causing resistant forms of bacteria to emerge.

In a recent study of Perdue poultry farms, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have pointed out that potentially dangerous antibiotics are used to help plump up the turkeys, increasing profits while simultaneously decreasing losses. Pole barn farming is similar to industrial production, but exists on a lesser scale. They have smaller units with the top half of the wall made of fencing to allow in extra light and air, while keeping out the wild birds. When housed in a pole barn, birds are subject to natural daylight, sometimes supplemented during the winter months with electric light. But there is often little control of temperature or ventilation, resulting in poor health. The feed and antibiotic treatments in pole barns are nearly parallel to that of industrial farms.

Free-range farming has a variety of descriptions; some include large amounts of space for turkeys to roam and feed on grass and worms (termed ‘free-range pastorally-fed’), while others consider free-range to include a strict regime of grain feeding to a 2’x2’ space shared between indoors and outdoors. While the exact definition depends on the producer, the general purpose behind free-range is to simulate the natural environment in which a turkey would live. Unlike conventionally raised turkeys, free-range turkeys are commonly slaughtered around 20-26 weeks of age. Growth rate is much more normal, resulting in healthier function of the organs. Many farms producing free-range turkeys use feed created locally, likely on the farm itself. For the most part, free-range turkeys are not given antibiotics, are lower in fats and saturated fats, and higher in vitamin A and omega-3s; all of these characteristics make them much more appealing to consumers.

In addition to the environment that a turkey is raised in, the terms of slaughter are equally important to consider. Ironically, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, originally passed in 1958 but since modified in the 2002 Farm Bill, entirely excludes turkeys, chickens, and fish. Considering these animals make up more than 99% of the animals slaughtered in the US, the lack of protection and regulations regarding their slaughter is quite alarming.

This holiday season, whether turkey, potatoes, greens, or squashes are served traditionally, consider the conditions where the product was growth and those that you would want to support most. There is no correct feeling or action to be made, just a level of conscientiousness for the effects of the purchase.

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