Wild turkeys are native to North America. They live mostly in forests and, being naturally inquisitive, they spend much of their time exploring and foraging for food. They are omnivores and will eat seeds, plants, insects and worms. They can fly and run at high speeds, and at night they rest in trees for safety from predators. Domesticated turkeys are believed to descend from the South Mexican turkey, and were brought to Europe by the Spanish.

Modern commercial turkeys have been selectively bred for fast growth and overly large breast muscles. They can no longer fly and often have difficulty walking. They are too heavy to mate naturally and instead, females are usually artificially inseminated. Turkeys are slaughtered when they are between 9 and 24 weeks of age, and may weigh upwards of 20kg.

An estimated 650 million turkeys are produced for meat each year, globally. Of these, over 240 million are produced in the US and over 240 million in the EU.

Approximately 90% of turkeys in the EU are kept in enclosed sheds in groups of up to 25,000 birds and have no outdoor access. The sheds, or barns, are windowless, with artificially controlled light to encourage the turkeys to eat more food, reduce their activity and grow fast. The low light helps to reduce feather-pecking but can cause eye abnormalities and blindness.

Overstocking barns results in a rapidly deteriorating environment in which litter, becoming wet from the birds’ waste, releases ammonia into the air. This causes painful skin and foot sores and eye and respiratory problems. Combined with poor ventilation, overcrowding can lead to very high temperatures in the shed, causing the birds discomfort and heat stress.

Feather-pecking and cannibalism are common problems in intensive turkey farming. With very little in their environment to investigate and explore, turkeys often begin to peck each other. When turkeys are a day old, and to reduce injury from feather-pecking, it is not unusual for part of their beaks to be cut off, a procedure which is painful and performed without anaesthetic.

Turkeys routinely suffer broken legs and wings from rough handling during catching, crating and transportation to the slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse, they endure further pain and distress by being hung upside down on a shackle line by their feet. Flapping their wings while on the shackle line means they sometimes touch the electrified bath before their heads enter the water, causing painful electric shocks.

Following electrical stunning, the birds are killed by cutting a combination of veins/arteries in their necks. Some are not stunned properly and regain consciousness before their throats are cut. If the main arteries are not effectively severed, they may be conscious as they are plunged into the scalding tank.

During winter, turkeys are often killed in smaller slaughterhouses or in on-farm facilities. This is sometimes done by neck dislocation, which may be carried out by untrained staff and without pre-stunning. In some instances, they may have their throats cut without pre-stunning. This is illegal in the EU, though exceptions are made for religious slaughter.

Controlled atmosphere killing (CAK) is regarded as the least inhumane method currently available. CAK involves the use of gas mixtures to stun (leaving them unconscious to pain) then kill the birds. Turkeys can be exposed to these gases while still inside the transport crates, which avoids the need for shackling the birds while they are still alive.

In higher welfare systems, sometimes referred to as ‘free-range’, turkeys are reared in barns with more space than in intensive systems. They may have daytime access to an outdoor range for at least half of their lives. Perches and straw bales are often provided, which encourages exercise and exploration. It also allows them to rest above the ground, which is more natural for turkeys and can reduce feather-pecking. These systems usually have better air and litter quality. This reduces the risk of lameness, foot sores and eye problems.

In organic systems, turkeys have access to an outdoor range, and are given more space per bird than in free-range systems. Small, movable houses may be used and shelter is often provided by trees and shrubs on the outside range. They are kept in much smaller group sizes; in the EU, 2500 turkeys per group is the maximum allowed.
Organic systems often use slower-growing breeds and the turkeys typically live longer (up to 5 months).

Approximately 4 million turkeys are raised and slaughtered in Ireland every year. About 1 million of these are slaughtered for the Christmas market. 30% of turkeys sold in Ireland over the Christmas period are imports.

14 December 2020

Gerry Boland from Animals Behind Closed Doors joined Joe Finnegan on Shannonside Local Radio on Monday’s show. He wanted to encourage people not to have turkey this Christmas.