Thanksgiving dinner means only one thing for millions of us: turkey. Of the 100 million turkeys on farms around the U.S., 46 million of them will be eaten on Thanksgiving Day. Americans will consume another 22 million turkeys over the Christmas holidays, according to the National Turkey Federation.

When turkeys arrive at our supermarkets, plucked and cleaned, there’s nothing to alert us to the conditions endured by most of the birds that eventually land on our holiday tables. But the vast majority of the turkeys sold during the holidays come from industrial factory farms, where as many as 25,000 birds – pumped full of antibiotics and GMO corn – are crammed into a single barn.

So at a time of year when we are supposed to be thankful for the good things in life, spare a thought for that factory-farmed bird whose life is definitely nothing to be thankful for.

We’re number one producer!

Turkey production used to be seasonal, but today’s producers can raise birds year-round in huge industrial barns. As consumers have become interested in healthier low-fat meats, turkey in the form of ground turkey, turkey breasts and deli meats, has become a meat for all seasons. Americans now eat just over 16 pounds of turkey per person each year.

But being the No. 1 producer of cheap industrial farmed turkey means we are also number one when it comes to causing suffering and cruelty, and perpetuating a whole host of unsustainable practices that ultimately make all our lives worse.

Around 85-90 percent of the turkey we eat comes from industrial factory farms. The birds are raised in overcrowded, noisy, dirty environments with little or no access to outdoors and no ability to express natural behavior.

Intensively reared turkeys can be subjected to beak-trimming—a traumatic procedure, performed without anesthetic (used to ‘fix’ the tendency towards aggression and reduce injuries and cannibalism, which arise in birds kept in unnatural and crowded conditions). Beak-trimming is painful, damages tissue and nerves, and renders the bird unable to naturally explore and “sense” the world around it through its beak.

Turkeys are also victims of historical genetic manipulation. The turkey of the past was a much smaller bird than the one we eat today. Today’s bird is bred for fast growth and a higher proportion of breast meat. Selective breeding for rapid weight-gain, along with the use of high-nutrient feed, means that conventional turkeys are too heavy to support their own weight. This can lead to lameness, painful leg/hip-joint inflammation and infections.

Their large size and broad breasts mean male breeding turkeys (stags) are unable to mate naturally without risking injury to the female. As a result, artificial insemination has become routine. This procedure involves ‘milking’ the males for semen, and then catching and inseminating the females (hens) by tube/syringe.

It’s a short, miserable life. A bird that could live up to 12 years in the wild is routinely slaughtered at anywhere between 9 and 24 weeks.

Paying the price

“Thanks” to industrial farming, the price consumers pay at the grocery store for industrially produced turkey has consistently gone down over the last decade. On the surface, that sounds like a boon for consumers.

But the supermarket price tag doesn’t reflect the real costs associated with the production of factory farmed turkeys – including the cost of cleaning up environmental pollution and the health costs associated with consuming contaminated poultry.

Cheap turkey also comes at a big cost to the farmers that are under contract with companies like Cargill and Tyson to raise the birds before slaughter. Contract farmers, who account for about 69 percent of industrial turkey production,  are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet, thanks to the industry’s “vertically integrated” business model.

Under this model, the big companies maintain control over research, hatching, growing, feeding, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing of the birds. Farmers are almost incidental to the process – some even describe their lives as being like serfs.

The traceability game

The original concept of blockchain was an open, shared public “ledger” to which independent participants could contribute entries and information. While information about a product or company could be added by anyone, once there it could not be taken away. In this way the blockchain, in theory, keeps people honest, remains independent and can continue to grow without its “owner.”

Of course, a blockchain is also only as good as the information fed into it. If companies create their own bespoke blockchain systems, over which they have total control, it’s easy to see how it could become just another meaningless marketing tool.

What can you do?

Turkey is the food centerpiece of choice for 85 percent of those who celebrate Thanksgiving, and Americans will spend around $991 million on Thanksgiving turkeys this year.  Though it may seem like a “luxury” there is no getting away from the fact that animals reared with the single goal of providing cheap meat for consumers are reared in ways that would turn most of our stomachs – and that diminishes both our lives and theirs.

It’s definitely nothing to be thankful for. We can do better, we can shop better and we can eat better.

At any time of year, the big question is whether we can continue to justify the ongoing cruelty of factory farming – so much of which is hidden behind inadequate and confusing labels – and whether we are willing to take a stand at the supermarket checkout.

This holiday season, let’s make our values shine through in our actions.

Original post: Pat Thomas for www.organicconsumers.org

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