The Trouble with Turkeys

Health ramifications for turkeys and humans are hidden behind Americans’ taste for turkey.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Chloe Huang

Many families enjoy having turkey as the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving meal. In fact, the National Turkey Federation estimates that Americans consume about 45 million turkeys each year on Thanksgiving alone. This practice has become such a tradition that few people question where their turkey comes from. However, the reality of how wild birds become neatly wrapped packages of meat in supermarkets is much less benign than what most people might imagine.

In the early 1900s, all commercial turkey breeds reproduced naturally, lived 3-7 years long, and grew at a natural rate. By the 1930s, turkeys were selectively bred to be bigger and have a larger breast size, creating the Broad Breasted Bronze breed. While larger, the Broad Breasted Bronze still had unattractive dark plumage, which prompted the breeding of Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys with less visible pinfeathers in the 1950s. This round of selective breeding produced the Broad Breasted White, the breed most commonly sold in supermarkets today. While its size and feather color make it possible for Broad Breasted White turkeys to be sold for as little as 99 cents per pound, this cheap price comes at the expense of the turkeys’ health and ultimately our own.

Because of the large chest width of modern supermarket varieties, these turkeys are unable to naturally mate and can only reproduce through artificial insemination. They also grow to unnaturally large sizes, weighing twice as much as the commercial turkeys of the 1960s. Broad Breasted turkeys also grow at a faster rate than is meant for their short life spans. They are slaughtered at just half a year old, while commercial turkeys in the early 1900s lived up to five to seven years, and wild turkeys live up to 12 years.

The differences produced by selective breeding are so significant that modern commercial turkey breeds with the same traits as those they had in the early 1900s are now considered to be exclusive heritage breeds. Though also domesticated, heritage turkeys are much more similar to wild turkeys than Broad Breasted turkeys are. However, heritage turkeys are much more expensive and, thus, comprise only a small minority of turkeys consumed at Thanksgiving tables.

Modern supermarket breeds don’t just lack this heritage status, though. They have lost their ability to fly and, even worse, have skeletons that cannot support their unnaturally heavy weight. This leads to skeletal deformities and joint pain, particularly in the legs. Standing becomes painful, and turkeys often struggle to walk. The chronic pain they suffer limits their mobility, and regardless of what external conditions these turkeys are raised in, the consequences of their selective breeding alone are agonizing.

While selective breeding accounts for many of the transformations turkeys have undergone, antibiotics play a major role too. Eighty percent of antibiotics are administered to livestock, and turkeys are fed antibiotics the most extensively compared to other livestock in the U.S. In cramped and unsanitary facilities like industrialized turkey farms, disease can easily spread, especially when Broad Breasted turkeys are genetically similar due to having been selectively bred to have common traits beneficial for profit. A single strain of disease could wipe out numerous turkeys, and, as a result, turkeys are fed antibiotics to prevent disease. Antibiotics are also used as growth promoters, as they speed up the growth of the turkeys. However, this heavy use of antibiotics allows bacteria that live in turkeys to develop resistance against these antibiotics. This can produce superbugs—bacteria resistant to most antibiotics—that can pass onto humans. Every year, 35,000 Americans die of antibiotic-resistant infections; the misuse of antibiotics being so prevalent in industrialized animal agriculture—turkey farming in particular—will only worsen this problem.

Taste and tradition are poor justifications for inflicting suffering on turkeys and are certainly not reasons to ignore a brewing public health epidemic. Those of us who can avoid buying supermarket varieties should, and opting for meatless turkey substitutes is often far more affordable than purchasing a heritage turkey. There’s a growing selection of plant-based turkey roasts, which use ingredients like vital wheat gluten to replicate the texture of turkey meat. As culinary technology becomes more advanced, better turkey substitutes will hopefully decrease the demand for Broad Breasted turkeys and make factory farming turkey obsolete, improving the welfare of turkeys and helping mitigate antibiotic resistance.