View Full Version : About a Turkey

November 26th, 2003, 09:00 AM
November 24, 2003


About a Turkey



When you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, waiting for the main attraction to be brought in on a platter, take a moment to think about where it came from and how it found its way to your table. After all, your turkey is not the same wily, energetic, tasty bird that struck our ancestors as the perfect centerpiece for an American holiday.

Most Americans know that the turkey is a native game bird, and that Benjamin Franklin thought it would have been a better national symbol than the bald eagle. For good reason: in the wild, Meleagris gallopavo is a fast runner and a notoriously difficult prize for hunters. Even after they were domesticated, turkeys remained spirited, traditionally spending the bulk of their lives outdoors, exploring, climbing trees, socializing and, of course, breeding.

Now consider the bird that will soon be on your plate. It probably hatched in an incubator on a huge farm, most likely in the Midwest or the South. Its life went downhill from there. A few days after hatching in the first of many unnatural if not necessarily painful indignities it had its upper beak and toenails snipped off. A turkey is normally a very discriminating eater (left to its own devices, it will search out the exact food it wants to eat). In order to fatten it up quickly, farmers clip the beak, transforming it into a kind of shovel. With its altered beak, it can no longer pick and choose what it will eat. Instead, it will do nothing but gorge on the highly fortified corn-based mash that it is offered, even though that is far removed from the varied diet of insects, grass and seeds turkeys prefer. And the toenails? They're removed so that they won't do harm later on: in the crowded conditions of industrial production, mature turkeys are prone to picking at the feathers of their neighbors and even cannibalizing them.

After their beaks are clipped, mass- produced turkeys spend the first three weeks of their lives confined with hundreds of other birds in what is known as a brooder, a heated room where they are kept warm, dry and safe from disease and predators. The next rite of passage comes in the fourth week, when turkeys reach puberty and grow feathers. For centuries, it was at this point that a domesticated turkey would move outdoors for the rest of its life.

But with the arrival of factory turkey farming in the 1960's, all that changed. Factory-farm turkeys don't even see the outdoors. Instead, as many as 10,000 turkeys that hatched at the same time are herded from brooders into a giant barn. These barns generally are windowless, but are illuminated by bright lights 24 hours a day, keeping the turkeys awake and eating.

These turkey are destined to spend their lives not on grass but on wood shavings, laid down to absorb the overwhelming amount of waste that the flock produces. Still, the ammonia fumes rising from the floor are enough to burn the eyes, even at those operations where the top level of the shavings is occasionally scraped away during the flock's time in the barn.

Not only do these turkeys have no room to move around in the barn, they don't have any way to indulge their instinct to roost (clutching onto something with their claws when they sleep). Instead, the turkeys are forced to rest in an unnatural position analogous to what sleeping sitting up is for humans.

Not only are the turkeys in the barn all the same age, they and the roughly 270 million turkeys raised on factory farms each year are all the same variety, the appropriately named Broad Breasted White. Every bit of natural instinct and intelligence has been bred out of these turkeys, so much so that they are famously stupid (to the point where farmers joke they'll drown themselves by looking up at the rain). Broad Breasted Whites have been developed for a single trait at the expense of all others: producing disproportionately large amounts of white meat in as little time as possible.

Industrial turkeys pay a high price for the desire of producers and consumers for lots of white breast meat. By their eighth week, these turkeys are severely overweight. Their breasts are so large that they are unable to walk or even have sex. (All industrial turkeys today are the product of artificial insemination.)

Needless to say, no Broad Breasted White could hope to survive in nature. These turkeys' immune systems are weak from the start, and to prevent even the mildest pathogen from killing them, farmers add large amounts of antibiotics to their feed. The antibiotics also help the turkeys grow faster and prevent ailments like diabetes, respiratory problems, heart disease and joint pains that result from an unvaried diet and lack of exercise. Because the health of these turkeys is so delicate, the few humans who come in contact with them generally wear masks for fear of infecting them.

On non-industrial farms, it takes turkeys 24 weeks to arrive at slaughter weight, about 15 pounds for a hen and 24 pounds for a tom. Industrial turkeys, however, need half that time. By 12 to 14 weeks, the whole flock is ready for the slaughterhouse. Once slaughtered, the turkeys have to suffer one more indignity before arriving in your grocer's meat case. Because of their monotonous diet, their flesh is so bland that processors inject them with saline solution and vegetable oils, improving "mouthfeel" while at the same time increasing shelf life and adding weight.

Anyone who cooks knows that salt alone won't do the trick. Once, simply sticking a turkey in the oven for a few hours was enough. Today, chefs have to go to heroic lengths to try to counteract the turkey's cracker-like dryness and lack of flavor. Cooks must brine, marinate, deep fry, and hide the taste with maple syrup, herbs, spices, butter and olive oil. It's no surprise that side dishes have moved to the center of the Thanksgiving menu.

Even so, 45 million turkeys will be sold this Thanksgiving, so turkey producers aren't doing badly for themselves. But could they be sowing the seeds of their own misfortune? By relying solely on a single strain of the Broad Breasted White, and producing it in huge vertically integrated companies that control every aspect of production, entire flocks and even the species itself is one novel pathogen away from being wiped off the American dinner table. The future of the turkey as we know it rests on only one genetic strain. And the fewer genetic strains of an animal that exist, the less chance that the genes necessary to resist a lethal pathogen are present.

It's for this reason that maintaining genetic diversity within any species is crucial to a secure and sustainable food supply. Sadly for the turkey and for us, the rise of the Broad Breasted White means that dozens of other turkey varieties, including the Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Jersey Buff, have been pushed to the brink of extinction because there is no longer a market for them.

What to do? One solution is to bypass Broad Breasted Whites altogether. A few nonprofit groups including my own, Slow Food U.S.A., and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are working with independent family farms to ensure that a handful of older, pre-industrial turkey varieties, known as heritage breeds, are still being grown. These varieties are slowly gaining recognition for their dark, rich and succulent meat. (My group, which encourages the preservation of artisanal foods, sells turkeys on behalf of these farmers, but we don't profit from the transactions.)

While it might be too late to get your hands on a heritage bird this year, there are some other options available to consumers who would like a turkey raised in a more humane fashion, even if it is a Broad Breasted White. Farmers' markets often have meat purveyors who raise their turkeys the way they should be, free ranging and outdoors.

At the market, you can often meet the person who grew your turkey and ask about how it was raised. Many independent butcher shops have developed relationships with local farmers who deliver fresh turkeys, especially for special occasions like Thanksgiving. A few environmentally conscious supermarkets get their turkeys from small family farms.

But as you shop, you need to look for more than just labels like "organic," "free range" and "naturally raised." They have been co-opted by big business and are no guarantee of a healthier and more humanely raised bird.

The key word to keep in mind is "traceability." If the person behind the counter where you buy your turkey can name the farm or farmer who raised it, you are taking a step in the right direction. You'll help give turkeys a better life. You'll be kinder to the environment. And you might even wind up with a turkey that tastes, well, like a turkey.

Patrick Martins is director of Slow Food U.S.A.

November 26, 2003

Preparing for the Feast? Read This First (4 Letters)

To the Editor:

"About a Bird," by Patrick Martins (Op-Ed, Nov. 24), about the sad, short lives of Broad Breasted White turkeys, reminds us that we have a choice about the horrid treatment of the animals raised for our food. "It's no surprise that side dishes have moved to the center of the Thanksgiving menu," he writes.

Thankfully, more and more people are discovering that a Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey is more creative, colorful, flavorful and guilt-free than one whose focus is the corpse of a bird that lived an unnatural, terrible life.
Fairfax, Calif., Nov. 24, 2003

To the Editor:

"About a Bird," by Patrick Martins (Op-Ed, Nov. 24), casts a shadow on the safety of eating industrial-farm-raised turkeys. But his recommendation of "traceability" when purchasing our Thanksgiving birds names one of the greatest American traditions: consumer power.

When it comes to consuming, whether eating or shopping especially beginning at Thanksgiving we're superstars.

It's simple. We are what we eat. As long as we refuse to see the link between our food and our well-being, we'll continue to swallow the empty calories of free trade, the mold of deteriorating local economies and the tasteless products of consolidated food markets. Buying local foods encourages greater accountability, the best way to ensure our health.
Philadelphia, Nov. 24, 2003

To the Editor:

Patrick Martins (Op-Ed, Nov. 24) cites a host of abuses to which "industrial" turkeys are subjected mutilations, impoverished environment, artificial insemination, disease-filled sheds, genetic disabilities, lack of exercise, ailments ranging from diabetes to heart disease. He is wrong, however, when he says that "every bit of natural instinct and intelligence has been bred out of these turkeys, so much so that they are famously stupid."

I've been rescuing "industrial" turkeys for 13 years. Despite their physical infirmities, these birds are sensitive, intelligent and alert. They are also extremely sociable, as people who visit our sanctuary are delighted to learn. Environment plays a key role in eliciting expressive behavior in birds as well as in humans. Let us remember this the next time we are tempted to hurl insults at our innocent victims.
President, United Poultry Concerns
Machipongo, Va., Nov. 25, 2003

To the Editor:

Thanks to "About a Bird" (Op-Ed, Nov. 24), it's going to be difficult to swallow my Thanksgiving bird this year . . . even with extra gravy.

I've already excluded beef and pork from my family's meals because of the inhumane treatment cattle and hogs receive at the hands of many American beef and pork producers. (Accounts of cattle still being conscious at the point of evisceration, and so on.)

So now, will poultry be next? It will be, if poultry producers continue to speed up production and "efficiency" at the expense of humane treatment and quality.

And next year, I'll be asking my family, "How about some more tofu turkey with that stuffing?" I can already hear the groans.
Rye, N.Y., Nov. 24, 2003

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

November 26th, 2003, 09:32 AM
Hmmmm. There may be a conspiracy to eliminate carnivore Thanksgivings. I got this greeting card this morning:


I order my turkey from Three Mile Island Farm. Drumsticks for everyone!!

Happy Thanksgiving folks.

November 26th, 2003, 04:18 PM
Happy Thanksgiving... that image is really disturbing thoiugh.

Freedom Tower
November 26th, 2003, 06:11 PM
It reminds me of how PETA describes the chickens from KFC. Unfortunately it's hard to get these major corporations to treat the animals "humanely", if you can even call it that since they will be killed eventually. They only care about how meaty the turkey/chicken is and the profit. I also care about the "meatyness" of the turkey since I'll be eating it, but some of the stuff they do to get them that way is just plain cruel. Cutting off their upper beak making their lower beak a shovel! That's awful. I will have to try not to think about this WHILE im eating the turkey.

In a happier mood, Happy Thanksgiving!

Also, I wonder if the free turkeys when you make a purchase of $100 or more at the supermarket are raised properly :(........... why do I doubt that?

November 27th, 2003, 02:23 AM
Great post.....I understand that you guy's want to celebrate the history behind Thanksgiving but the way we (humans?) treat our animals makes me very sad and furious. That's why i became vegetarian.

Happy Thanksgiving anyway to everyone.

(What about a nice piece of french cheese instead? Bwahahahaha and don't forget a nice bottle of St Emilion)

Amusez-vous bien!!!!!

November 28th, 2003, 07:47 PM
No liberal guilt here, we got an Organic Free-Range Bird, no beak-chopping, no claw clipping, no inhumane treatment other than being slightly overcooked, (sorry Mom).

November 30th, 2003, 05:29 PM
in 20 years they'll have soy turkey, just watch.

December 2nd, 2003, 01:37 AM
At Whole Foods the "Tofurkey" was prominently displayed, includes gravy.

The Tofurkey actually cost more than the standard supermarket turkey!

December 10th, 2003, 09:27 AM
Everyone keep her/his eyes peeled for an investigative expose regarding the industrial-grown Christmas goose.

Silly me, I thought the thread would give me ideas for Christmas dinner. But in a way I guess it did. It certainly will make me more alert at the market.

December 10th, 2003, 03:06 PM
At Whole Foods the "Tofurkey" was prominently displayed, includes gravy.

The Tofurkey actually cost more than the standard supermarket turkey!

Don't forget the Wishstix! :wink: Yeah, the organic foods store that I used to work at had boxes upon boxes of Tofurky meals that few people would buy. It's hard to make a truly good meat (or most anything else, for that matter) substitute from soy.