That Free Thanksgiving Turkey isn’t Free

turkey in a cage

As Thanksgiving, aka “Turkey Day” to most Americans, draws near once again, supermarkets across the country are offering free turkeys as holiday promotions. The deal, of course, is that when you spend X dollars in the store, you get a free turkey to feed your family on Thanksgiving day. This enticement not being enough, the stores put up large posters showing juicy, golden-brown turkeys, and even advertise them in their store flyers and on receipts.

This sort of gimmick is both disturbing and offensive to anyone who cares about animals, human health, and the environment. I use such strong language because those turkeys being peddled and objectified for profiteering all surely come from factory farms, just like the majority of other animals that we use for food. So by turning the living beings that are slaughtered for our day of “thanks” into cheap prizes for spending money, the supermarkets are both supporting the factory-farming industry and devaluing the birds that have to suffer and die.

The Facts about Turkeys

It may not seem like that big of a deal to use turkeys as prizes, given that so many turkeys get eaten at Thanksgiving–and every other day, for that matter. According to the National Turkey Federation’s website EatTurkey.com, more than 226 million turkeys were consumed by Americans in 2009…46 million of those on Thanksgiving day. (Christmas Day came in second, with 22 million, and Easter third, with 19 million). They reported that 88% of Americans surveyed ate turkey on Thanksgiving, meaning that, with the average turkey weighing 16 pounds, 736 million pounds of turkey were consumed on Thanksgiving in 2009.

That is a lot of turkey flesh.

But this is not, as the National Turkey Federation takes it, a reason to celebrate. Nearly all turkeys (and other animals) consumed these days in the United States spend their short, painful lives in factory farms. Here, as the Farm Sanctuary website explains, they are crammed by the thousands into warehouse-like buildings, packed so tightly they can hardly move. As you can imagine, this environment is fetid and just ripe for disease…which is why the animals are pumped full of antibiotics and other drugs.

Of course, the tiny fraction of turkeys not raised in industrial conditions are still ultimately treated as objects with one end in mind: premature slaughter for human consumption; their lives are often not much better than their industrial cousins.

Slaughter time is far from humane as well, given that many birds are scalded (for de-feathering) and butchered while still conscious, when the electric shock or throat cutting fails to stun or kill them sufficiently. And this after a stress-inducing ride to the slaughterhouse in an open-air transport truck.

Perhaps more appalling, modern turkeys (no matter which type of farm they are on) have been genetically modified to reach that fleshy, scrumptious weight of 16 pounds or so, making them into odd Frankensteinian monsters. They grow much faster and differently than their ancestors, developing huge breasts that leave them unable to reproduce naturally (hence the need for artificial insemination) and causing diseases and leg problems. (To see a video and more information about the turkey industry, visit Farm Sanctuary’s website.)

Even if you do not care about animal welfare, these facts should give you pause because of the impact they have on human health. Those antibiotics used to keep turkeys and other farmed animals alive amount to nearly half of all antibiotics produced in this country, over 20 million pounds. This abuse of antibiotics has played a large part in the increase in antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria and other pathogens. And due to the conditions of farms and slaughterhouses, turkeys and other animals are still disease ridden when they reach your kitchen. Ever wonder why you are advised to cook meat thoroughly and, in the case of poultry, virtually sanitize anything coming into contact with raw flesh?

On an even larger scale, the harmful environmental impacts of animal agriculture have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. As the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other international agencies have reported, livestock production worldwide is responsible for 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions, more than that from all forms of global transport (14%). Livestock also suck up huge amounts of land, water, and cereal grains–threatening arable land, water security, and food availability for humans, while only returning when consumed as little as one-fifth of the energy put in to raise them. Factory farms especially, though not exclusively, take this sort of resource depletion and pollution emission to grand scales.

The realities of the poultry industry are inescapable in many communities, where “growers” raise turkeys and chickens for corporate “integrators,” which then transport hundreds of individuals at a time to processing plants that can “process” hundreds of thousands (even millions) of them per week. The trucks taking the birds from the farms to their death travel on highways and local roads. My wife and I see them daily, barreling through the town with white feathers flying out behind them… Alternatively (or not, really), local farms tout “humane” turkeys for Thanksgiving, of course charging top dollar for equally dead turkey flesh from an individual being who, at the end of the day, was needlessly bred and killed and consumed after most likely being slaughtered at the same facilities as a factory-farmed turkey.

And the winner is…?

These reasons, touching on both ethics and health along with corporate manipulation, should make clearer why a “free” dead, tortured turkey is anything but a prize to be coveted. Obviously, every individual person can choose whether or not to buy a turkey on Thanksgiving, to take part in the tradition that connects being grateful with consuming a dead animal…or to celebrate in another way. That is the truth about Thanksgiving turkeys and every other animal product consumed by every human being: It is an ethical choice, whether or not one makes the connection between the supermarket and the farm.

But for stores to turn the tradition of Thanksgiving, and the birds who are slaughtered so that we may celebrate with a yummy meal, into a marketing ploy is truly sad. It increases the demand for turkeys and encourages the thoughtless consumption of these suffering, exploited, fundamentally manipulated creatures. Moreover, it further objectifies them, taking them from the usual bio-widget in our food industry to things that are valuable only because they can turn a profit. Is this any type of “prize” or “reward” to get excited about? Is this any way to treat the bird whom Benjamin Franklin proposed as our national symbol, instead of the bald eagle?

Thanksgiving is meant to be a day to celebrate our loved ones and all the things we are grateful for. What we eat on that day has nothing to do with true gratitude or celebration. Considering the ethical and health consequences that are inherent in eating turkeys, we surely can find better things to spend our money on than the supermarket turkey…or the items that will win us a “free” dead bird.

That is not what Thanksgiving is about.

Want to help?

If you would like to help farmed turkeys and support the end of factory farming, here are a few things you can do:

  • Contact your local supermarkets that are offering free turkeys as customer rewards. Tell them the facts about farmed turkeys and ask them to consider abandoning such disrespectful campaigns.
  • Adopt a turkey or make a donation to one of the many farmed-animal sanctuaries that are providing loving homes to the victims of our industrial food system, such as Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, or Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary.
  • Contact food companies that raise animals for food or get their animal products from them, including fast-food and other restaurants, and let them know how you feel about what they are doing to animals, human health, and the environment.
  • Celebrate a vegan Thanksgiving, using the day to gather with family and friends without animal products on the menu.
These turkeys reside at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, and so will not wind up on anyone's Thanksgiving table.
These turkeys reside at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, and so will not wind up on anyone’s Thanksgiving table.

Want to offer vegan options at the Thanksgiving table? Check out current vegan food offerings, including Tofutti dairy substitutes, and vegan meat.

How about some crafty decorations for the Thanksgiving table? Check out these Thanksgiving crafts from MNN.

Image credit: MontagZen and Mark Peters, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.

  1. M'lou Arnett

    I’ve bought locally raised, organic turkeys the last few years. They’re delicious and not factory-farmed but expensive. I don’t mind the cost once a year though in order to get away from the mass-produced turkeys for all the reasons you cite above. I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian (I’m a “flexitarian” – meat occasionally, but not frequently). For many years, I’ve given my “free” turkey away to the local food shelter to help out and not waste my “prize” as you term it, but your post has caused me to think harder about this choice. I’m not switching to tofu turkey but if I really want to help those who are less fortunate at Thanksgiving and do the right thing, maybe I’ll splurge on 2 local, organic turkeys this year – – one for my family and one for a less fortunate family. I can help out and take one more factory farmed turkey out of the supply/demand equation.

    1. Justin Van Kleeck

      Wow, M’lou, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments–but more importantly for your kind actions. It is great for you to think both of the animals and the people who are less fortunate. I am glad my post proved thought provoking in some way. All the best, and happy Thanksgiving (in advance)!

    1. Justin Van Kleeck

      Bobby, that article from Stossel is horrible. I do not think I have seen such a narrow-minded, heartless piece of writing in a long time. Making arguments for feedlots because they are more energy efficient? Is he serious? It makes me sad that human beings can so blithely look at animals as no more than grist for their gastronomical mill.

  2. Bobby

    Justin, those who do not view cattle as commodities would probably share your view that Stossel’s article is callous. However, those who raise “free-range” livestock and make the claim that doing so is better for the global environment still view those animals as commodities destined for the dinner plate. They just charge more because their marketing campaign has convinced the consumer that “happy” livestock produces a better meal, a cooler planet, a lower sea level, etc. Since you mentioned the costs of factory farming in terms of greenhouse gases in the original post, I only thought that it would be appropriate to point out that free-range farming is not necessarily more environmentally friendly in those terms.

    1. Justin Van Kleeck

      Sure, Bobby, and this speaks to the points you were making about green-energy companies and false/inaccurate advertising. I personally feel only slightly better about cage-free, free-range, etc. than I do about factory farming, because the animals are treated more humanely. But anyone who believes *any* form of animal agriculture is eco-friendly needs to do some serious research. That is why most organizations, like the IPCC and UN, are pushing for reductions in consumption of animal products as key to fighting climate change. (We can leave the climate change discussion itself for another time…)

      Also, Stossel’s story is pretty myopic about the whole carbon-footprint question. He ignores completely the tremendous toll that corn, which is used to fatten up the cows (and other animals), takes on the environment. Corn is one of the most fertilizer-, pesticide-, and water-intensive crops we have. It also damages the soil pretty seriously and is usually grown in huge monocultures, controlled by a small number of mega-corporations (e.g., Monsanto). So by eating corn-fed animal products, you are in effect paying for the destruction of arable land *and* of small farms. (The latter is perhaps the most sad and poignant; only 2% of Americans live on farms today, thanks largely to monopolization of Monsanto et al.)

  3. Amy

    Thanks for the article Justin. I have been a vegetarian for the last 18 out of 20 years and I’m happy to do without the turkey this year as well. I don’t need a big dead bird on my table to make me happy. But I hope the people that do eat them will make the humane choices and stop buying from the factory farms.

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