Overcrowding, selective breeding, and lack of environmental enrichment means millions of factory farmed turkeys in the UK endure short, miserable lives. Here we expose the truth behind turkey factory farming to encourage you to leave turkey's off your plate this Christmas.
For many people, a festive meal isn’t complete without a roast turkey as the centrepiece.
But what a lot may not realise is how much suffering these birds endure throughout the journey from farm to table.
Around 15 million turkeys are killed annually in the UK, the majority of which are intensively reared in indoor production systems, inside large sheds housing up to 25,000 of them.
Andrew Gough is the media and investigations manager for animal rights non-profit Surge.
He told Vegan Food & Living: “Nine out of every 10 turkeys found on supermarket shelves will have come from factory farms, each one responsible for unimaginable cruelty and suffering rarely seen by the public.
Through selective breeding, overcrowding, and lack of stimulation, these factory farm-style conditions restrict many natural behaviours, impacting both physical and emotional wellbeing.
The barren farms seem even more bleak in comparison to the rich natural habitats of wild turkeys.
Turkeys: fascinating animals with complex social structures
Dr Toni Vernelli, who has a PhD in animal behaviour, is head of communications at Veganuary.
Over the last 25 years, she has worked for multiple animal advocacy organisations, visiting hundreds of British farms.
Dr Vernelli told Vegan Food & Living that turkeys are intelligent, fascinating creatures (despite their reputation as being simple-minded).
“In the wild, they live in really complex habitats. They are naturally forest birds, and they live in very varied landscapes,” she said.
“The forest has a lot of dangers, a lot of different food sources, so they have to learn what’s safe to eat, and where they can find food.
“They have to learn where is safe to roost at night to get away from predators.
“And they have really great social structures.
“You have the males who are bright and beautiful, and have their harems of females. They guard them. I’ve seen male wild turkeys stopping traffic so the females can cross roads safely.
“Turkeys are seriously underestimated by most people.”
Turkey factory farming: welfare concerns
There are numerous welfare concerns when it comes to turkey factory farming, according to Dr Vernelli.
Some of these have been highlighted by investigations on turkey farms across the UK, with hidden camera footage revealing birds tightly packed into sheds, cannibalism, and injuries.
One exposé, at a Bernard Matthews facility, even showed workers ‘playing baseball‘ with live birds.
Around 15 million turkeys are killed annually in the UK, the majority of which are intensively reared inside large sheds housing up to 25,000 of them.
Injuries sustained on turkey farms
But it’s not just these egregious abuses that cause suffering, she says but standard practices on intensive farms.
“Turkeys are interesting because they live so much longer than chickens, who are killed when they are six-weeks-old, or even younger.
“Turkeys are often reared to three months, possibly four months old, before they go to slaughter.
“So they are more mature, and they become a lot more aggressive. On chicken meat farms you don’t have the problem of pecking.
“That’s why chickens raised for meat don’t have the ends of their beaks removed whereas those laying eggs do, because they live a lot longer.
“With turkeys, pecking is a big problem. It is the number one problem that they can get quite aggressive with each other, even when they have been beak-tipped.”
This can lead to devastating injuries, she explained.
“So many of the undercover investigations I’ve been involved in, you find turkeys in the shed whose skull is exposed through the top of their head, because they’ve been pecked so much.
“These head wounds are probably the most common problem on these intensive farms.”
Other welfare issues can include the birds developing chronic pain and hip problems as a result of having oversized breasts.
Behavioural issues caused by turkey factory farming
On top of that, the animals suffer from the lack of stimulation in their environment.
“They’re desperately bored,” said Dr Vernelli.
“There’s no enrichment for them, so there’s nothing else for them to take their frustrations out on, or for them to peck – which is a very natural behaviour for them – so they peck at each other.”
Gough concurred that the lack of enrichment, cramped conditions and prevention of natural turkey behaviour can lead to stress, aggression and even cannibalism.
He added: “This is exactly what we found in 2018 when we investigated a facility in Lincolnshire.
“The rotting bodies of dead turkeys, and the faeces-ridden substrate that covers the floor, creates unsanitary conditions perfect for harbouring diseases including bird flu.”
The unnatural and inhumane conditions on turkey factory farms lead to stress, aggression, and even cannibalism.
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Selective breeding – and the disturbing mating process
These are a result of selective breeding, to satisfy consumer demand.
“[Selective breeding] is not done quite to the same degree as with chickens, as people are willing to pay more for turkey, so they don’t have to get them up to that weight quite as quickly to have a profit margin,” said Dr Vernelli.
“But the large breast problem that we see in chickens has very much happened in turkeys, because people like breast meat.”
These oversized breasts not only lead to chronic pain and discomfort – they also cause another problem.
Dr Vernelli explained: “Because the breast is so highly-prized, turkeys can’t mate naturally. There is no way a male could mount a female.
“Male turkeys have [to have their semen collected by the farmer], so the females can be artificially inseminated.”
The issues with selective breeding
During their short lives, turkeys can grow to around four times the size of their wild ancestors, and up to double the size of their farmed predecessors of 25 years ago.
Animal activists say this means some turkeys inevitably ‘collapse and die due to their inability to reach food and water’.
Disturbingly, this is because their legs buckle under the strain of their unnatural weight.
Those who reach the age of slaughter face the ordeal of travelling to the abattoir. Commonly a rough process, the birds ‘often suffer broken legs and wings (and may even die) from rough handling during catching, crating and transportation to the slaughterhouse’.
The three or four-month-old birds, who have a lifespan of up to 10 years in the wild, are most commonly gassed to death in the UK.
But some are hung upside down on a shackle line by their feet for up to three minutes under UK law.
After this, they are stunned (normally by electrical water bath) before having their throats slit.
Why you shouldn’t eat turkey this Christmas
As Dr Vernelli points out birds from all kinds of farms (even those labelled ‘higher welfare’) end up in the same slaughterhouses.
This means there is one simple thing concerned consumers can do to help turkeys bred for their meat.
“They can leave turkeys off their plate this Christmas,” she said.
Surge’s Andrew Gough added: “There is no guarantee that smaller high-end producers are much better as we saw from Animal Equality’s exposé of Grove Smith Turkeys in 2018.”
Dr Vernelli concluded: “The only way to have a humane festive dinner is to make sure a turkey isn’t part of it.”
Save a turkey this Christmas and make a delicious vegan dinner instead!
Find everything you need for a compassionate Christmas with our vegan Christmas recipe guide.