From Ethics in the real world : 86 brief essays on things that matter
WHEN I TEACH PRACTICAL ETHICS, I encourage my students to take the arguments we discuss outside the classroom and talk to friends and family about them. For Americans, there is no better occasion for a conversation about the ethics of what we eat than Thanksgiving, the holiday at which, more than any other, families come together around a meal. With that in mind, I arrange the topics in my course so that issues about food and ethics arise just before Thanksgiving.
The traditional centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is a turkey, so that is the obvious place to start the conversation. According to the National Turkey Federation, about 46 million turkeys are killed for Thanksgiving each year, a substantial part of the 300 million turkeys Americans eat annually. The vast majority of them—at least 99 percent—are raised on factory farms. In many respects, their lives are like those of factory-farmed chickens. The newly hatched turkeys are raised in incubators and then, before they are sent to the producers to be raised, at a time when chickens are debeaked, the young turkeys undergo that too, and also have their talons cut off, and for male turkeys, their snood—the fleshy erectile protuberance that grows from the forehead of a male turkey. All this is done without anesthetic, despite the pain it clearly causes. The beak, for example, is not just a horny substance like a fingernail. It is full of nerves that enable a free-living turkey to peck at the ground and distinguish something edible from something that is not.
The reason for these mutilations is that the birds are about to be placed in dim, poorly ventilated sheds, where they will live out the rest of their lives crowded together with thousands of other birds. The air reeks of ammonia from the birds’ droppings, which accumulate for the four or five months that the turkeys are in the sheds. In these unnatural and stressful conditions, turkeys will peck or claw at other birds, and cannibalism can occur. The snood is removed because it is often a target for pecking from other birds.
When the birds reach market weight, they are deprived of food and water, rounded up, often in a very rough manner (undercover videos show turkeys being picked up and thrown into shipping crates) and transported to slaughter. Each year, hundreds of thousands don’t even make it to slaughter—they die from the stress of the journey. If they do make it, then, again like chickens, they are still not guaranteed a humane death, because the US Department of Agriculture interprets the Humane Slaughter Act as not applying to birds.
One difference between turkeys and chickens is that turkeys have been drastically altered by breeding designed to enlarge the breast, which is considered the most desirable part of the turkey to eat. This process has gone so far that the standard American turkey, the descriptively named Broad Breasted White, is incapable of mating because the male’s big breast gets in the way. Here, I tell my students, is an interesting question to drop into a lull in conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Point to the turkey on the table and ask: if turkeys can’t mate, how was that turkey produced?
Some years ago, I teamed up with Jim Mason, who grew up on a farm in Missouri, to write a book called The Ethics of What We Eat. Jim decided to see for himself how all the hundreds of millions of sexually disabled turkeys are produced. He saw that Butterball, a large industrial producer and processor of turkeys, was advertising for workers for its artificial insemination crew in Carthage, Missouri. No prior experience was required. Jim passed a drug test and was put to work. His first role was to catch the male turkeys by the legs and hold them upside down so that another worker could masturbate them. When the semen flowed out, the worker used a vacuum pump to collect it in a syringe. This was done with one bird after another until the semen, diluted with an “extender,” filled the syringe, which was then taken to the hen house.
Jim also had a spell working in the hen house, which he found worse than working with the males. Here is his account:
You grab a hen by the legs, trying to cross both “ankles” in order to hold her feet and legs with one hand. The hens weigh 20 to 30 pounds and are terrified, beating their wings and struggling in panic. They go through this every week for more than a year, and they don’t like it. Once you have grabbed her with one hand, you flop her down, chest first, on the edge of the pit with the tail end sticking up. You put your free hand over the vent and tail and pull the rump and tail feathers upward. At the same time, you pull the hand holding the feet downward, thus “breaking” the hen so that her rear is straight up and her vent open. The inseminator sticks his thumb right under the vent and pushes, which opens it further until the end of the oviduct is exposed. Into this, he inserts a straw of semen connected to the end of a tube from an air compressor and pulls a trigger, releasing a shot of compressed air that blows the semen solution from the straw and into the hen’s oviduct. Then you let go of the hen and she flops away.
Jim was supposed to “break” one hen every 12 seconds, 300 an hour, for 10 hours a day. He had to dodge spurting shit from panicked birds, and torrents of verbal abuse from the foreman if he didn’t keep up the pace. It was, he told me, “the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work I have ever done.”
Back to the Thanksgiving table. Now that the family understands exactly how the bird they are eating came into existence, and what kind of a life and death it has had, I suggest to my students that they canvass opinions on whether it is ethical to support this way of treating animals. If the answer is no, then something needs to be changed for next year’s Thanksgiving, because our willingness to purchase industrially produced turkeys is the only incentive the turkey industry needs to continue to treat turkeys with so little respect for their interests.
There are other options. A heritage turkey, of a breed able to mate, raised on pasture and not mutilated, will cost you about four times as much, pound for pound, as a factory-farmed one, but at least you will know that the bird had a good life. Or will you? There have been allegations of fraud against producers who keep a few hundred turkeys in humane conditions outdoors, but sell several times that many turkeys, most of them birds who never go outside. If you really want to ensure your bird was raised outdoors, you have some work ahead of you checking the veracity of the producer.
The alternative, of course, is a plant-based Thanksgiving meal, which, as well as avoiding complicity in cruelty to animals, is better for the environment and for you too. Search for “vegetarian Thanksgiving” on the New York Times website and you’ll find plenty of delicious seasonal recipes suited for the occasion. Or if you don’t want to cook, you can always buy a tofurkey.
People will say that turkey is traditional at Thanksgiving. In fact it isn’t clear if the pilgrims ate wild turkey at that first Thanksgiving in 1621, but one thing is sure: they didn’t eat a factory-farmed Broad Breasted White.