Given the existence of the Federal Humane Slaughter Act, one might think that at least in their final moments the turkeys would be treated with respect and killed humanely. But they aren’t, for while the Federal Humane Slaughter Act (FHSA) does require that all animals be rendered unconscious and impervious to pain prior to being killed, chickens and turkeys are not considered “animals” under the act. [That’s right. The federal government does not consider chickens and turkeys to be animals. Perhaps we should require that politicians pass an eighth grade biology class before being eligible to serve in the U.S. Congress.] Since turkeys are not regarded as animals under the FHSA, they receive no humane protections at all. Consequently, when they reach the slaughterhouse, they are inhumanely unloaded by workers who pull them out of their transportation crates and hang them upside down by their feet on hooks attached to a conveyor belt that transports the fully conscious, terrified turkeys to an electrically-charged waterbath where they are lowered head first into the electrically charged water. United Poultry Concerns describes the effects of the waterbath as follows: “The electricity shoots through the birds’ eyes, eardrums, and hearts causing ‘intolerable pain’.” The electricity temporarily paralyzes the birds, but it does not render them unconscious. One could use sufficient voltage to render the birds unconscious, but that would cause blotching on the skin and would make them less marketable. So, slaughterhouses use just enough voltage to paralyze the birds without rendering them unconscious. The paralyzed birds are then transported via conveyer through a machine that slits their throats, after which they are entirely submerged in a 160ºF scalding tank to facilitate feather removal. Many birds are still conscious when they reach the scalding tank. This mechanized method of slaughter is brutal and horribly inhumane.
When one reflects carefully on all of the misery that turkeys are put through just to wind up on our dinner tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it makes one’s holiday meal seem a lot less happy and joyful! Most people agree that unnecessary suffering is intrinsically bad. Most people think that unnecessary cruelty is wrong and ought not be promoted, supported, or encouraged. The problem is that purchasing turkeys raised in factory farm conditions does just that: It financially supports those agribusinesses that raise turkeys in inhumane ways, and the profit that that support generates encourages these corporations to continue to use their cruel, yet highly profitable, methods of animal “husbandry.”
Let me pause for a moment to stress that opposition to unnecessary cruelty is not some idiosyncratic value possessed only by a few animal rights whackos. The beliefs that unnecessary suffering is intrinsically bad and that unnecessary cruelty is wrong and ought not be supported express widely shared values that form the basis of much of our moral theorizing.
On September 9, 2001, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia eloquently expressed these very values in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in which he spoke out against the institutionalized cruelty inherent in modern factory-farming techniques. Here is an excerpt from Senator Byrd’s unprecedented speech:
Our inhumane treatment of livestock is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric. Six-hundred-pound hogs—they were pigs at one time—raised in 2-foot-wide metal cages called gestation crates, in which the poor beasts are unable to turn around or lie down in natural positions, and this way they live for months at a time.Like Senator Byrd, when most people learn of the horrifically inhumane conditions in factory farms, they are sickened. They are infuriated. They don’t want to support that kind of cruelty with their purchases. Instead, they seek out humane alternatives to factory-farmed turkeys. Many are even willing to pay top dollar to purchase “free range” turkeys, assuming that the lives of “free range” turkeys are much better than the lives of factory-farmed turkeys. Sadly, these conscientious consumers are falling victim to yet another instance of industry fraud. The 'free range' label is designed to make consumers believe that the animals were raised humanely and were allowed to run about freely and unfettered throughout the barnyard. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The term 'free range' is not indicative of humane animal husbandry practices. According to the labelling division of the USDA, a 'free range' bird is one that has access to the outdoors, period, no matter how small or overcrowded the outdoor pen. That is the only difference between a “free range” bird and a conventionally-raised, factory-farmed bird. Apart from their “access to the outdoors,” “free range” turkeys are subjected to all of the inhumane treatment and abuses that factory-farmed turkeys are subjected to. Like their conventionally-raised, factory-farmed counterparts, “free range” turkeys are debeaked and detoed without anesthesia and injected with antibiotics within hours of birth. They are transported inhumanely to “grow-out sheds” where they are crowded together with thousands of other birds. In these grow-out sheds, they are forced to stand in their own accumulating urine and fecal waste and breathe ammonia fumes. After 4-6 months of this existence, they are inhumanely loaded onto trucks, transported to the slaughterhouse, and slaughtered in the same inhumane way that conventionally-raised turkeys are slaughtered. For more information on the free range fantasy, read the “Free Range Fact Sheet” available here. You can also view pictures documenting the conditions on a “free range” turkey farm here.
On profit-driven factory farms, veal calves are confined to dark wooden crates so small that they are prevented from lying down or scratching themselves. These creatures feel; they know pain. They suffer pain just as we humans suffer pain. Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. Unable to spread their wings, they are reduced to nothing more than an egg-laying machine.
Last April, the Washington Post detailed the inhumane treatment of livestock in our Nation's slaughterhouses. A 23-year-old Federal law requires that cattle and hogs to be slaughtered must first be stunned, thereby rendered insensitive to pain, but mounting evidence indicates that this is not always being done, that these animals are sometimes cut, skinned, and scalded while still able to feel pain.
A Texas beef company, with 22 citations for cruelty to animals, was found chopping the hooves off live cattle. In another Texas plant with about two dozen violations, Federal officials found nine live cattle dangling from an overhead chain. Secret videos from an Iowa pork plant show hogs squealing and kicking as they are being lowered into the boiling water that will soften their hides, soften the bristles on the hogs and make them easier to skin. . . .
The law clearly requires that these poor creatures be stunned and rendered insensitive to pain before this process begins. Federal law is being ignored. Animal cruelty abounds. It is sickening. It is infuriating. Barbaric treatment of helpless, defenseless creatures must not be tolerated even if these animals are being raised for food—and even more so, more so. Such insensitivity is insidious and can spread and is dangerous. Life must be respected and dealt with humanely in a civilized society. . . .
Thus, Mr. President, God gave man dominion over the Earth. We are only the stewards of this planet. We are only the stewards of His planet. Let us not fail in our Divine mission. Let us strive to be good stewards and not defile God's creatures or ourselves by tolerating unnecessary, abhorrent, and repulsive cruelty. [End of Senator Byrd’s speech.]
[Note: Some chickens and turkeys are labelled 'free roaming' rather than 'free range'. The term 'free roaming' just means birds which have not been raised in cages, even though they are permanently confined in a warehouse or shed and never see the outdoors until the day they are taken to slaughter. In short, conventionally-raised, factory-farmed birds can be labelled 'free roaming' provided they are not raised in cages.]
The bottom line: “Free range” and “free roaming” turkeys are not humanely raised. Don’t fall prey to consumer fraud. Refuse to line the pockets of fraudulent turkey producers who mislead well-meaning consumers into thinking their products are humanely raised. If you really want to do what is right and not support unnecessary cruelty, seek out truly humane plant-based alternatives to cruelly-raised turkeys this Christmas. Options include replacing that tortured turkey with an easy to prepare Tofurky. Or try serving a delicious Kashi Nut Loaf (recipe available here) or a hearty (and heart-healthy) vegetarian Sheppard’s pie. Feeling a little more ambitious, bake a “Mrs. Gobble-Good's Golden Brown Pie” [recipe available at the bottom of the page here]. Or just pick up any good vegan cookbook. The options are countless. Celebrate this Christmas with a compassionate meal truly befitting of the season. Happy Holidays!
Note from KBJ: I located the text of Senator Byrd's speech. See here.