The True Cost of a Free Thanksgiving Turkey

by Lisa Elaine Held

10/11/19

At Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, farmer Beau Ramsberg’s six-week-old turkeys look perfectly happy pecking their way through tall grasses on the ground, but he can tell it’s likely time for them to start roosting. “At night, turkeys seek out a high place where they can get off the ground,” he said, looking out across a field he’s divided into different pastures for chickens, sheep, ducks, pigs and — this time of year — turkeys. “If I don’t bring in something for them to roost on soon enough, they’ll just jump the fence and fly up onto the greenhouses.”

Ramsberg’s birds live active, curious lives outside until the day they are slaughtered, on site, by a small team of careful, highly trained workers.

The free Thanksgiving turkey your grocery story hands out via its frequent shopper rewards program, however, has a very different life and death. In the US, contract growers — mainly in Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas — raise turkeys for a few massive meatpacking companies: primarily Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill and Tyson.

Whether the bird is free or cheap, the costs of industrial turkey production are greater than the price at the supermarket.

Animal Welfare in Food Production

How Those Free Thanksgiving Turkeys Live

Differences in turkey production start with genetics. A company called Aviagen owns almost all of the turkey genetics in the world, and it has created fast-growing, efficient turkeys bred to gain weight quickly and produce large breasts. (Just like with chicken, Americans have developed a massive appetite for white breast meat, so the industry has altered the birds to match that demand.)  The standard bird in the industry is commonly referred to as the broad-breasted white; companies like Butterball and Jennie-O use some variation of this breed. Aviagen also owns companies like Valley of the Moon, which sells slightly slower growing breeders like a broad-breasted bronze. Many small farmers, like Ramsberg, opt for those breeds. A smaller number of farmers raise extremely slow-growing heritage turkeys. Those birds come from smaller breeding companies, have genetics that trace back to before the 1950s and are able to mate naturally.

Fast Growth Rates of Industrialized Turkeys

Typical turkeys today grow much faster and get much bigger than they used to. According to Aviagen, hens (female) can reach about 20 pounds in 14 weeks, while toms (male) can reach about 30. The numbers vary depending on many factors, but that’s at least double the typical growth rate of a turkey in the 1960s.

Research shows “there is a relationship between genetic selection for increased growth, which can lead to lower survivability and problems with walking ability as well as leg, foot and skin health, and leg problems.” Many studies have shown, for instance, that fast growth affects gait, or a turkey’s ability to walk, which can increase mortality. However, according to poultry science expert Phillip Clauer, a professor at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, those issues, especially gait, have improved in recent years, as genetics have advanced. “They’re selecting for so many different parameters now above and beyond just growth and efficiency,” he said. “So, we’ve improved the bird structure.”

The Cramped Quarters of That Free Thanksgiving Turkey

Rapid growth is partially due to genetics, but the turkeys’ environment also plays a huge role. Industrially produced turkeys are kept indoors at all times in crowded barns. Stocking density varies, but some industry numbers are quoted as high 15 pounds per foot, which would mean a 20-pound hen would get less than 1.5 square feet. Clauer’s estimates of industry standards are 2.5 square feet for a hen and 3.5 to 5 feet for a tom. He also estimated typical barns have about 16,000 square feet of space. Butterball’s turkeys carry a certification called American Humane Certified, which mandates turkeys get a square foot for each 7.88 pounds of bird, meaning a 20-pound hen would have close to three feet of space. The National Turkey Federation, which represents the biggest companies in the industry, declined to answer detailed questions on standard stocking density and barn size. Instead, it sent general comments, like “In some cases, turkey barns are nearly twice as long as a football field, leaving plenty of room for the turkeys to move comfortably.” In one video the organization sent, 30,000 young turkeys are housed in a single barn. In another, older turkeys ready for slaughter are essentially side by side without space between them.

When confined to a small space, turkeys eat frequently and put on weight quickly. Ramsberg’s turkeys and chickens, on the other hand, while not that genetically different from industrial birds, they take several weeks longer to reach slaughter weight. That’s because running around in the pasture causes them to develop muscle and burn calories.

2.5

The standard square feet allotted for a single female turkey on an industrial farm

Animal Welfare Issues with Your Free Thanksgiving Turkey

Overall, industrial turkey production looks a lot like industrial chicken production, but many animal welfare advocates say it can be even worse for the birds. “In some ways, conventional turkey is worse for farmed animals than chickens, in part because the birds are alive so much longer and they’re so much bigger by the time they reach market weight,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of animal welfare organization Farm Forward. “The density in a conventional barn is really substantial, it’s wall-to-wall.”

Injurious Pecking and Beak Trimming

One of the biggest issues is pecking. According to research, “Injurious pecking (head pecking, feather pecking and cannibalism) and aggression are the major behavioral welfare issues of commercial domestic turkeys. Injurious pecking affects millions of turkeys annually and is a common occurrence in most commercial turkey flocks at one point or another.” To prevent turkeys from pecking each other, the industry trims the birds’ beaks. That used to be done via hot blade beak trimming. Now, infrared beak trimming is used. “It’s a little microwave ray,” Clauer explained. “The poult’s [baby turkey] head goes in this device at just the right angle, and the microwave actually causes the bill from the quick out not to grow.” Clauer said this method was much more humane, although one study noted that the method is considered to be more precise but “does not necessarily cause less short term pain.” Growers also adjust lighting in the barns to prevent pecking, but research shows prolonged exposure to light can cause other issues like vision problems and eye deformities. (Clauer said there have been meaningful advances in using different wavelengths of light that are better for the birds.)

Full Confinement Housing

Another thing that’s different in turkey production as opposed to chicken, Clauer noted, is that “we’ve gone to full concrete floors now, and full confinement housing because of some of the challenges with blackhead, a protozoa that gets in the soil.” While other animals like chickens can carry the organism and not get sick, turkeys are particularly susceptible to the disease.

Breeding in turkeys is also unique, because modern turkeys are unable to reproduce naturally. There’s limited research on welfare issues in turkey breeding, but deCoriolis said that “birds are going to be permanently in cages and artificially inseminated over and over again, until their reproductivity starts to drop.”

Butterball and American Humane Certified

In 2011, 2012 and 2014, the animal rights group Mercy for Animals did undercover investigations into turkey production, some of which focused on breeding facilities. They documented serious abuses and created a website called “Butterball Abuse.”  Butterball’s public relations representative also declined to answer detailed questions on industry practices but sent a statement, part of which stated, “In addition to adhering to industry-wide practices in partnership with the National Turkey Federation, Butterball also voluntarily seeks and maintains the American Humane Certified status via regular — and periodically unannounced — third-party audits of all of our company-owned and contract farms. As background on the certification process, American Humane’s animal care standards were built upon the five freedoms of animal welfare, which require that an animal be healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express normal behavior, and free from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress.”

In terms of animal welfare certifications, many experts argue the American Humane Certified seal is not particularly meaningful in terms of truly improving animal welfare, although it does limit stocking density.

Antibiotics in Our Food System

Environmental and Health Impacts of Industrial Turkey Production

The environmental costs of raising turkeys in high numbers in confinement are mainly related to waste. Manure accumulates in the barns and must be removed and disposed of. Poultry waste is an excellent fertilizer and farmers typically dispose of it by spreading it on fields. The problem is that when there is so much of it in one place, excess nitrogen and phosphorus can get into waterways and disrupt ecosystems, killing aquatic life and eventually contributing to dead zones.

Poultry waste that accumulates in barns also produces ammonia, a gas that is more than 80 percent nitrogen. The amount of ammonia emissions produced by broiler farms (chickens raised for meat) has been well documented and turkey waste produces the same compounds. Ammonia enters the air and can affect biodiversity, watersheds and human health.

Antibiotics, Salmonella in Poultry Production

While industrial chicken has shifted to fairly widespread antibiotic-free production over the past few years, turkeys are also harder to raise without antibiotics, and that change has been slower. Butterball introduced an antibiotic-free product line in 2017 and says it’s “committed to the responsible use of antibiotics” across the board.

Pathogens like salmonella are also a huge issue in industrial poultry production; outbreaks have occurred recently in Butterball and Jennie-O turkey. A recent European research review found that “there is conclusive evidence that increased stocking density, larger farms and stress result in increased occurrence, persistence and spread of salmonella in laying hen flocks,” but evidence on how that might translate to turkeys raised for meat is not clear.

Clauer, the Penn State poultry scientist, said turkey farms have increasingly sophisticated systems for preventing disease. “The industry really has to go out of its way from the standpoint of proper tight biosecurity practices and really good management practices to try to keep any kind of disease at check,” he said. “So they do a lot more cleaning and disinfecting between flocks [compared to chicken production].”

Alternatives to a Free Thanksgiving Turkey

Of course, when turkeys are raised on pasture in small flocks, many potential animal welfare and environmental issues disappear. In addition to the birds living outside in their natural habitat, picking for grubs in the grass, Ramsberg doesn’t have to worry about waste removal. As the turkeys pick over an area of the pasture, he expands it or moves them to another area so they can keep eating. As they move, their waste is spread out over the pasture, fertilizing it for regrowth.

Since they have plenty of space, he also doesn’t face issues with picking, which means no need for beak trimming. “They do get a little bit aggressive, especially the males as they get older and try to establish dominance,” Ramsberg said. “But if they’re given space, you don’t have the problems with cannibalism.”

Heritage Turkeys

Variations on alternatives to a typical industrial turkey exist. Ramsberg’s birds, the broad-breasted bronzes, are genetically similar to many used in industrial production; their slower growth is partially attributable to their environment. Farm Forward, meanwhile, recommends only buying heritage turkeys, which are turkeys that have not been bred for production efficiency, grow much more slowly and reproduce naturally. Famed farmer Frank Reese, featured in the documentary “Eating Animals,” is one of the only growers raising those birds commercially. Heritage turkeys are not only hard to find, they also look and taste significantly different compared to typical modern turkeys. Farmers like Ramsberg often choose not to raise them because consumers prefer the taste of more modern turkeys and because they grow so slowly, the economics don’t work out.

Organic Turkeys

There’s a similar tension with organic turkeys. The cost of organic feed is much higher (which can be prohibitive when you’re already raising a small flock on pasture) and many farmers would prefer to buy from local soy and corn growers in their area rather than buying imported feed that’s been transported across an ocean. (That’s compounded by the fact that in the past few years, regulators and journalists have uncovered rampant fraud, with major shipments of conventional grain being sold as organic. Over the past year, industry organizations have been working on various programs to curb those abuses of the certification.)

And while the USDA organic certification mandates turkeys eat organic feed and are not given antibiotics, its requirements for space and outdoor access in poultry are vague. (There is currently an effort underway to update the law to change this.)  Many organic turkey growers do raise their birds on pasture, but the certification does not guarantee that.

Terms to Know
Heritage Turkey
Turkeys that have not been bred for production efficiency, grow much more slowly, and reproduce naturally.

However, if you’re interested in saying no to the free Thanksgiving turkey, or the extremely cheap Butterball, there are options. At a select number of grocery stores, GAP standards (identified via the Animal Welfare Certified label with a 1-5 rating) can help you both identify a slower-growing bird and how the turkey was raised; look for level three or higher. Within the context of our current industrial food system, buying your Thanksgiving bird from a small farm raising turkeys on pasture in your local foodshed is a great place to start. Not only will it support the welfare of the birds and the environment, your dollars will go directly to the farmer, rather than to large meatpacking companies that share very little of those dollars with the growers who raise the birds.

If you’re able to find a heritage turkey near you and can swing the once-a-year splurge, you’ll be adding a true nod to tradition to the Thanksgiving table. Slightly slower-growing birds that have been raised outside with room to roam, meanwhile, will be more expensive upfront but minimize costs to the animal, the environment and public health.

Ramsberg’s turkeys, for instance, sell for $3.99 per pound. With his methods, he can’t compete with free Thanksgiving turkeys or birds selling for $0.99 per pound. “It stifles the demand, and people definitely have to value what we’re doing in order to buy it, because there are so many other cheap alternatives out there,” he said. “The last few years have been really challenging. We got in on the demand for local food early and we enjoyed a lot of success, and now the laws of economics are catching up with the whole industry.”

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