Most Americans probably think more about poultry weight around Thanksgiving than any other time of year. Will the turkey feed the family? Will it fit in the oven? For the poultry industry, however, bird girth is a year-round obsession, and unbeknownst to most Americans, things have gotten out of hand. Nearly nine billion chickens and turkeys are raised in this country every year and due to genetic manipulation they are freakishly big, disproportionate, and suffering. And the industry shows no signs of stopping – pushing the physical limits of these birds every year to turn a quicker profit.
Thanks to deliberate breeding techniques, the average modern turkey weighs more than twice what it did in 1929, and breast muscle makes up the majority of that weight increase. But that busty profile comes at a price. Today's birds are top heavy, overweight and suffer from high rates of lameness and disease. Turkeys are bred by artificial insemination because their giant breasts prevent them from mating naturally. Often unable to walk or move without discomfort, the birds spend most of their lives lying down in crowded sheds, and often develop open wounds on their breasts and feet from near constant contact with their wet waste. A 2012 Auburn University study compared heritage breed turkeys --roughly equivalent to the turkeys raised before genetic selection began 50 years ago--to the nearly ubiquitous modern breed and found that 75 percent of the modern-breed birds had footpad sores, while none of heritage birds did. These open sores can act as pathways for infection, which can pose a foodborne illness risk to consumers. The fact that birds are crammed together by the thousands increases stress and the possibility of disease spreading.
The plight of chickens and turkeys has largely escaped consumers' consciousness. That's the result of a combination of factors: most poultry meat is now consumed in parts, not whole birds, so it's hard to tell how big the birds have become; there are almost no laws protecting birds on farms or during slaughter so companies rarely face cruelty charges for documented mistreatment; and the poultry industry has become largely self-regulated, preventing transparency around its practices. When it comes to the problems with large-scale industrial animal agriculture, the elephant in the room is actually a bird.
But consumers are starting to notice, partly because poultry has been getting some bad press lately. Foodborne illness from chicken is more common than from any other meat. A 2013 Consumer Reports study of retail chicken revealed that 97 percent of chicken breasts tested harbored potentially dangerous – and sometimes antibacterial resistant – bacteria like E.coli, campylobacter and salmonella. Two recent multi-state outbreaks of salmonella have been linked to poultry with the latest spanning a year and making over 600 consumers ill. The connection between the health of birds on farms and the health of consumers is not escaping the public. According to a 2014 poll commissioned by the ASPCA, 78 percent of chicken consumers surveyed feel that raising chickens humanely leads to safer chicken products.
Companies are already facing-and responding to-consumer outrage over restrictive, inhumane gestation crates for pregnant sows and battery cages for egg-laying hens. Public concern over the misuse of antibiotics in animals led Perdue and Tyson to make commitments earlier this year to reduce these drugs in their chicken production. It's now time for chicken companies to take steps to improve the health and welfare of the billions of birds they produce each year.
Consumers concerned about how chickens and turkeys are being treated need to raise their powerful voices: share information within their networks and send a message the industry cannot ignore. Whenever possible, seek out independent certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane and Global Animal Partnership, which represent a significant improvement over conventional practices. If those products are unavailable, request that store managers carry them. This kind of demand for transparency and accountability reaches poultry companies, telling them that consumers care, and that if they don't listen, their problems will only get bigger.
The poultry industry has built its collective brand on the notion that chicken and turkey meat is healthy, cheap, and ethically produced. But as more Americans seriously investigate where their food comes from, these notions will be challenged by what they learn, and the cruelty and health risks of birds raised for meat will increasingly be rejected. This Thanksgiving, as we give thanks, we should also commit to a world where plenty does not come at the price of suffering.