In the United States, over 250 million turkeys are slaughtered each year, with over 45 million just for Thanksgiving. The overwhelming majority of these birds (over 99%) are a genetically engineered and industrially-farmed breed known as Broad Breasted White. As the name suggests, this breed of turkey has an unnatural abundance of white breast meat. In many ways, industrial turkey farms are similar to industrial chicken farms–typically there are thousands of birds packed into a closed space with no natural light, no access to the outdoors, and mechanized feed and water (often laced with antibiotics and growth hormones). Adult turkeys in an industrial farm typically cannot walk properly or reproduce on their own, and artificial insemination is the norm. The eggs are hatched in an incubator and newborns have no contact with their mother. Shortly after birth, the young turkeys are placed into a large dark warehouse that will be the only space they will ever know. Their toes and beaks are cut without pain killers. Due to the grotesque environment, millions of birds die from “stress-induced conditions“. Those that survive grow at an astonishing rate, attaining market weight in just 12-18 weeks. The adults often are blind, due to lack of natural light and other factors (such as pecking fights in the tight quarters). According to one study, if a 7 pound human newborn grew at the same rate as an industrial turkey, it would be 1,500 pounds at 18 weeks of age.
A small but growing number of turkeys are non-genetically engineered Heritage Breeds. Heritage Breeds were in existence prior to the industrial-farming practices introduced in the 1960s, with some breeds tracing their roots to the 1800s. Standard farming practices for Heritage breeds include liberal roaming of pastures, humane growing conditions, and no antibiotics or growth hormones. Heritage turkeys are difficult to find, with some farmers requiring advanced notice (often months in advance) to purchase. The higher cost of Heritage turkeys (about $7 a pound, compared to approximately $1.50 a pound for industrial birds) reflects the higher cost of raising them, as well as insufficient subsidies for farmers employing organic and/or sustainable practices (along with over-subsidization of industrial and corporate farms).
It’s important to note that an organic turkey is not necessarily a Heritage breed. An organic turkey is any breed that has been fed an organic diet. Similarly, a free-range turkey is not necessary a Heritage breed. In fact, free-range does not mean that the turkey has actually stepped foot on a pasture. Rather, under USDA regulations, a bird can be labeled free-range if it lives in a space where there is access to the outdoors. Reaching the outdoors is immaterial. If knowing your turkey matters to you, be sure to ask the right questions, including the breed of the turkey, what feed the turkey has been provided (including whether the feed was comprised of genetically-modified ingredients), whether the turkey has been given antibiotics or other drugs or hormones, and whether the bird actually foraged in a pasture.