Read Between the Labels: Unwrapping the Thanksgiving Turkey
By Selena Sobanski
Here we are: it’s almost Thanksgiving and the familiar chaos of dinner preparation, family coordination, and determining who’s responsible for wrangling in drunk Uncle Eddy at the table has begun. Uncertainty for us around this holiday season is customary; after all, what’s better than spontaneity and a few cranberry stains to ring in the holiday spirit? Uncertainty for some, however, isn’t part of the game. While we scramble, we’re unknowingly being watched and manipulated.
Meat companies are in an increasingly awkward position. After countless undercover investigations inside factory farms, Americans are recoiling at the thought that animal abuse may be occurring on America’s farms, cruelty against our most fundamental values. We are a proud society of animal lovers. Sixty-five percent of us share our homes with them, embracing their slobber, fur balls, accidents, and most special of all, their unconditional love. That’s why many of us, including me, have sought out only “humanely-raised,” “cage-free,” and “free-range” meats, eggs, and milk products. Organizations like the Global Animal Partnership, featured at Whole Foods, claim to certify animal products based on the precise way in which animals are raised, providing animal welfare ratings to satisfy the higher welfare-seeking customers.
Like most consumers, I value transparency and ethics. I want to make sure that the story I’m being told is the truth, so I decided to investigate what “humane” animal farming really looks like. Where better to look than the “free-range” turkey farm that has supplied the President with his turkey since the 1960s, Jaindl Farms. A supplier to Whole Foods Market, Jaindl stands in the top 98th percentile for animal welfare and in the top 95th percentile for food safety according to auditors. On paper, Jaindl is officially one of the kindest farms in the country to their animals (among the top 2%!). In person, however, the reality is strikingly different; when I visited Jaindl earlier this year, the picturesque facility illustrated on their website washed away as I laid eyes on the most intense misery I have ever witnessed.
I entered Jaindl in the dead of night, as it was the only way to get a good look at the facility. The air in the sheds was so thick with dust and debris that I could barely see. The smell of ammonia was so overwhelming that I desperately tightened my breathing mask as soon as I entered the first shed. The turkeys let out soft, distressed squabbles and ruffled their feathers in fear because the only humans they had ever seen come through the shed had come to kill the injured birds. Thousands of white turkeys were crammed in each shed. No more than five steps into the first barn, I saw a dead turkey so mutilated that her head was ripped off and almost all of the feathers on her body had been removed, revealing ghastly red wounds- she had most likely been cannibalized, as I learned is frequent in these facilities.
Everywhere I looked, birds had been trampled. Turkeys’ whole bodies had been pecked by the surrounding birds. Several birds had broken or bent legs. Many appeared to have serious eye infections; some had faces so swollen that their eyes weren’t visible and one turkey even had her eye pecked out. I saw horribly mutilated faces; one turkey completely lacked half her face, a product of painful beak trimming when she was a chick. Lame birds were everywhere. The sickest birds among the crowd could not get up, so they were stepped on, defecated on, and pecked at, often until death. The birds who were ill could not access the food and water and appeared emaciated, lying desperately underneath the food troughs, unable to satisfy their bodies’ most basic of needs. How could I be standing in a farm that scored “perfect” on an Animal Welfare Audit?
Amid all the misery in the shed, the most heartbreaking sight was a small turkey desperately making her way to the other turkeys encircling us with only one functioning leg. She dragged herself across the ground in a wobbly attempt to flee. We knew farm workers would kill her, snapping her neck as they do to all the runts in the flock, so we decided we couldn’t let her stay and suffer. I placed my hands around her wings, brought her close to my chest, and carried her back to the door through which we entered.
Avery, as we named her, now lives at a sanctuary where humans take care of her. The life she lives now is the life I had always imagined “free range” turkeys to live; yet the contrast between her sanctuary life and Jaindl could not be starker. The reason Jaindl can be called “perfect” is that animal industries have perverted the very idea of welfare. Jaindl, like all other turkey farms, is an industrial warehouse stacked with living creatures. This Thanksgiving, we may have to ask ourselves: is raising turkeys humanely for food even possible?