let’s talk turkey

Or better yet, let’s talk fowl.

I recently finished a book titled Eating Animals,  by Jonathan Foer.  Mr. Foer spent several years investigating how the animals we eat are raised and slaughtered.  Funny thing, when he started his research he was not a vegetarian.  He is now.  His exhaustive work compliments many other investigative reports I’ve read over the past decade.

Several years ago, the context escapes me, but I wrote to a niece about the subject of eating meat and her partial response was “I’m a full-fledged carnivore.”  Indeed, most of us are.  Most humans, on all continents, since the beginning of humans, have eaten and eat flesh of some form.  We grew up eating flesh.  It’s become an integral part of our diets because it’s everywhere AND, more recently, it’s cheap.  A few generations back, animal flesh was not nearly as prevalent or as cheap.  A plate of chicken tenders today is cheaper than a head of broccoli.

When I travel and find myself in an airport and hungry, the easiest thing to eat, although I never do, is chicken something.  Chicken caesar salads, chicken sandwiches, chicken pasta, chicken this and chicken that.  Chicken something is everywhere.

We used to raise chickens on a farm.  They walked and ran around, outside.  They roosted. They used to have at least a few weeks of a normal life before they were whacked.  Not anymore.  The genetically engineered chickens we eat today grow from hatch to slaughter in 48 days and to twice the size a few generations ago.  The chickens of today, because they grow so unnaturally fast, can’t run around even if they had the space because their skeletal frame and organs cannot keep pace with, or support, their flesh weight.  Even if they could, they don’t have the space to walk because they are grown in sealed buildings packed between 30,000—50,000 bpb (birds per building).  They can barely ruffle their feathers let alone turn around.  We pump them full of feed they don’t naturally eat and antibiotics so that they grow, as quick as possible, to ideal production weight.

We’ve turned what was a farming practice into a factory operation.  Factory processing is all about reducing speed-to-market and squeezing out all unnecessary costs.  Forget that animals, even fowl animals, feel pain and are not permitted to live even close to what might be a normal life for them.

The numbers reveal that 99% of the chickens and turkeys sold in supermarkets or served in restaurants today are so severely genetically altered and harshly raised that to say each of those animals lived a stressful life would be a gross understatement.

But how the animal is raised is not something we think about.  We just know it tastes good, that it’s available almost everywhere, and it’s cheap.  Not enough of us give a second thought that what we eat matters, and that if it’s animal flesh, what those stress-filled flesh vibrations may be doing to us.  With some research, it’s somewhat obvious that the chickens and turkeys available in our supermarkets and restaurants were in some degree of less-than-optimal health when they were slaughtered.

Oh, but we buy ‘free-ranging’ fowl.  Not.  The term ‘free range’ is not defined by the USDA.  It’s a term left up to the manufacturers (not farmers) to define.  For chickens, they’ve decided that free-ranging birds are allowed 110 square inches maximum for their entire short lives vs 67 square inches.  That free-ranging space is barely larger than a standard size sheet of letter paper.  A chicken needs three times that much space just to flap its wings. Most free-range birds never see the light of day.  Sounds like a joke.  No, sounds like a legal scam.  Foer says that to believe a chicken or turkey is ‘free range’ is similar to believing in ‘starry and magical.’  Still, the USDA estimates that less than 1% of chickens are free-ranging, which means there is not enough good quality fowl flesh in the US to feed even a medium size city.

Most of us care where our food comes from.  If it’s flesh, we hope that it somehow arrives to our plate in a near ethical fashion.  But for those who suck down cans of soda pop, diet or otherwise, logic would say that the quality of their food is not so important.

The following is a quote from Foer’s book, “today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products, and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far.  Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model.  So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals, which encourages antibiotic resistance, which makes those indispensable drugs less effective in humans.  In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys we eat are making it harder to cure human illness.”  He goes on to say that we regulate possible destructive toys for children (externally visible) yet “we allow our children to eat cruel and destructive food products” (not visible).

But what Foer fails to mention in his book is the increasing number of farmer’s markets around the country, who raise and sell fowl products, not simply free-range, but free-running.  They don’t count bpb.  These small family farms will almost always welcome visitors who want to see how the animals are raised.  The pictures and images they post at the market stands and on their websites are assets.

For store-bought fowl, forget it.  It’s impossible for an outsider to see how intensively-produced chickens, eggs, and turkeys are raised and processed.  We are not permitted for good reason, because if we saw what went on, we might be sickened at the sight.  Pictures and images are a liability.  For more on the subject, check out Food Safety News, in which author explains that a few states have passed “ag-gag” laws, which makes it illegal to expose inhumane treatment of animals at a factory farm.  The law defies good common sense yet three states have passed such a law, Utah, Missouri, and Iowa.  A fourth state tried to pass the ag-gag law late last year, but the good people of Pennsylvania smartly voted it down (the law was introduced by a senator from Lancaster who aimed to protect the gross conditions at the Kreider egg farm in Manheim against an investigation by the Humane Society).

In his book, Foer also doesn’t give enough credit, even though he gives them a one-line mention, to stores like Whole Foods Markets, for sourcing and selling locally, organically raised birds, fowl that has the opportunity to nest, roost, to live in flocks of 30-60, in an environment natural to them.  WFM has a comprehensive certification program that prohibits intensive confinement, as well as hormones and antibiotics.

We want to eat wholesome, and most of us are even willing to pay more for ethically raised flesh.  But KFC’s buckets and McD’s nuggets are mighty powerful.  So are those chicken caesar salads at every airport.

Hey, I’m no vegetarian.  I’m just talkin fowl.  If chicken soup is what the doctor ordered, then you are better off choosing your chicken well.  Fact is, if you don’t know for sure that the chicken, turkey, or eggs you are eating are from organically grown, free roaming, ethically treated birds, then know that those animals were harshly and cruelly treated during their entire lives for your eating pleasure.  We are growing, processing, and feeding ourselves dirty birds, designed to look and taste like an economical and appetizing fare.

Next week, we’ll talk porky.  After that, lion and tigers and bears, oh my.

2 thoughts on “let’s talk turkey

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for writing this, Freddie! Very thoughtful. An important reminder that factory farming had changed the whole face of the farming industry. And a good reminder to be mindful of the choices you make when buying meat and eggs for your family. Hopeful with more awareness of this issue, people will force producers in the food industry to make it easier for us to make better choices.

    1. Freddie Spaghetti Post author

      Sarah, Thanks for commenting. Agreed, if we were more in the know about how the flesh we love (to eat) was raised, it doesn’t mean we’d become vegetarians, but we could help nudge meat and fish producers back to letting animals live a somewhat normal (healthy) life before we consume them. Factory farming has driven high-grade protein into low-grade fuel, masked to look like something better. fs


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