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November 24, 2010

More than Pardons: A Thanksgiving Wish for Turkeys


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving—a holiday grounded in the principles of celebration and gratitude.  Here’s one holiday that does not smack of commercialism, and it is instead a time for families and friends to assemble around the dinner table, to talk, and to feast. In the broadest sense, so many of us do indeed have much to be grateful for, including the bounty of American agriculture, and tomorrow is a day to reflect on that good fortune.

It is also a holiday built around the consumption of turkeys.  Sadly, the domesticated birds sold from factory farms look like a caricature of the wild birds from which they descend.  Today’s industrially produced birds have been selectively bred for enormous body mass and, as a consequence, many of them cannot stand or walk after only a few months of life. They have so much breast meat that they are even incapable of copulation—reproduction now occurs only through artificial insemination.  They are not healthy animals, and they suffer chronic pain.  Some of them die from heart attacks—suggesting that something is deeply wrong in their physical make-up when baby and juvenile animals perish from maladies we associate with old age.

This week The HSUS took a look into one other grim facet of industrial turkey production.  We had an undercover investigator at the largest turkey hatchery in the nation, Willmar Poultry Company (WPC) in Willmar, Minnesota, for 11 days in October, and the investigator documented an awful practice associated with the disposal of baby birds not fit for production. These poults, as they are known, are killed by dumping them into a giant grinding machine. It’s death by maceration, and it is an unpleasant and little-known process of disposal.

Many of the little turkeys put into the grinder at day’s end had been injured by the machinery of these industrial facilities.  Fast-moving conveyor belts carry the baby birds through the factory to have their back toes amputated and their beaks seared with lasers—both with no painkillers at all. And if there are problems with the birds or the process, they are redirected for grinding.  Others are ground alive because they are simply not needed to fill orders for that day—too many hatched and not enough demand on those days.

We found sick and injured baby turkeys languishing throughout the day before being sent to the giant grinder after hours of suffering. Other poults who had fallen off conveyors or out of plastic bins wandered the floor of the factory, following after the workers on whom they seemed to have imprinted.

I’ve written to Willmar’s President and CEO, Ted Huisinga, to see if we can get a dialogue going with the company about improving handling, care, and euthanasia of the turkey poults who are, right now, treated so much like garbage—the collateral damage of an industry driven solely by the bottom line. Our investigator was told that if a consumer buys a turkey in a major grocery store, there’s a 50 percent chance the bird came from WPC.

Our investigation has attracted some considerable media attention, and I hope it makes people think twice about getting birds from these factory farms.  Here are some links to stories in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Associated Press, West Central Tribune, Daily Mail (UK), and ag trade journal Brownfield.

Thanksgiving is a celebration.  But it is also a time to think about others.  I cannot stop thinking about these turkeys, especially the babies, and their sad fate on industrial farms.  At The HSUS, we all should be conscious consumers, and Thanksgiving is a good day to put thoughts into action.

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