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How America broke the turkey

A new investigation reveals how the company behind the White House turkey pardon — and the rest of the industry — really treats its birds.

Inside a farm that raises turkeys for Jennie-O, the second largest US turkey producer.
| Photo courtesy of Kecia Doolittle
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

Late into the night on November 2, a few animal rights activists opened an unlocked barn door and stepped foot into a sea of turkeys living in gruesome conditions. It was one of several barns at a sprawling factory farming operation in Owatonna, Minnesota, that raises turkeys for Jennie-O, the country’s second-largest turkey producer and this year’s supplier to the annual White House turkey pardon ceremony.

“We documented a lot of really horrific health issues,” activist Kecia Doolittle, one of the investigators, told Vox. “It was about as bad as you can imagine.”

They found numerous turkeys who were dead and rotting, Doolittle said, and many who had trouble walking. There were also live birds pecking at dead birds, and dozens of birds with visible wounds — each a sign of cannibalism, a persistent problem in turkey farming.

Doolittle also alleges there were a number of turkeys who were immobilized and unable to access food and water. In a letter to Steele County’s attorney and local law enforcement, Bonnie Klapper — a former assistant US attorney advising Doolittle — said the conditions are a violation of Minnesota’s animal cruelty law, which stipulates that “No person shall deprive any animal over which the person has charge or control of necessary food, water, or shelter.” (Minnesota is one of the few states that don’t exempt agricultural practices from their animal cruelty statute.)

“It smelled terrible,” Doolittle said. The air made her throat burn, likely due to high ammonia levels from the turkeys’ waste, which gives the birds eye and respiratory issues.

The activists found a sign on the property that read, “Jennie-O Turkey Store cares about turkeys — you should, too!”

A sign inside the Jennie-O turkey facility, which reads “Jennie-O Turkey Store cares about turkeys — you should, too!”
A sign inside the Jennie-O turkey facility.
Courtesy of Kecia Doolittle
A rotting bird at the Jennie-O turkey farm.
A rotting bird at the Jennie-O turkey farm.
Courtesy of Kecia Doolittle

“Jennie-O Turkey Store takes the welfare of the animals under our care seriously and has robust animal care standards throughout our supply chain,” a spokesperson from Hormel Foods, Jennie-O’s parent company, told Vox via email. “We conduct routine audits at our facilities to ensure that our standards are being met with animal-handling practices and policies set forth by the National Turkey Federation and the American Veterinary Medical Association.”

Doolittle rescued two of the birds — whom she later named Gabriel and Gilbert — and took them to veterinarians in Wisconsin, who urged her to euthanize Gilbert. “They both had really severe infections, they both had parasites,” Doolittle said, but Gilbert was in especially bad shape, with a wound under his wing, an infection on his face, and pecking wounds on part of his genitalia.

But Doolittle wanted to give him a chance to recover. Both birds were treated and given a combination of antibiotic, pain relief, and antiparasitic drugs; Gabriel is on the mend, while Gilbert’s condition remains touch and go.

Gilbert getting checked at the veterinarian.
Kecia Doolittle
Gabriel and Gilbert at the veterinarian.
Kecia Doolittle

Sherstin Rosenberg, a veterinarian in California and executive director of a sanctuary for rescued poultry birds, wrote in a veterinary opinion that Gabriel and Gilbert’s condition “suggests serious animal welfare problems” in Jennie-O’s facility.

The findings, while disturbing, are common across the turkey industry. Numerous animal welfare groups have found similar conditions at operations run by Jennie-O’s competitors — even the ones that brand themselves as more humane. That’s because turkey farming is incredibly uniform, with companies using generally the same practices and the same breed — the Broad Breasted White turkey — that’s been bred without regard for their suffering.

How the poultry industry broke the turkey

Like everything else in the US — cars, homes, cruise ships — the turkey has become supersized.

The poultry industry has made turkeys so big primarily through selective breeding. The Broad Breasted White turkey, which accounts for 99 out of every 100 grocery store turkeys, has been bred to emphasize — you guessed it — the breast, one of the more valuable parts of the bird. These birds grow twice as fast and become nearly twice as big as they did in the 1960s. Being so top-heavy, combined with other health issues caused by rapid growth and the unsanitary factory farming environment, can make it difficult for them to walk.

Turkeys have been bred to grow twice as fast and become nearly twice as big as they did in the 1960s.
Annie Ng for Vox

Another problem arises from their giant breasts: The males get so big that they can’t mount the hens, so they must be bred artificially.

Author Jim Mason detailed this practice in his book The Ethics of What We Eat, co-authored with philosopher Peter Singer. Mason took a job with the turkey giant Butterball to research the book, where, he wrote, he had to hold male turkeys while another worker stimulated them to extract their semen into a syringe using a vacuum pump. Once the syringe was full, it was taken to the henhouse, where Mason would pin hens chest-down while another worker inserted the contents of the syringe into the hen using an air compressor.

Workers at the farm had to do this to one hen every 12 seconds for 10 hours a day. It was “the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work” he had ever done, Mason wrote.

Wren was rescued from a factory farm and now lives at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland. She must be carted around because she has difficulty walking.
Amruza Birdie

In stressful, crowded environments, turkeys can be aggressive and peck one another, and even commit cannibalism. Instead of giving turkeys more space and better conditions, producers mutilate them to minimize the damage. They cut off a quarter to a third of their beaks, part of their toes, and their snoods — those fleshy protuberances that hang over their beaks — all without pain relief.

Turkeys are excluded from federal laws meant to reduce animal suffering during transport to the slaughterhouse and during slaughter itself, so you can imagine — or see for yourself — how terribly they’re treated in their final hours. According to the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, the Jennie-O slaughter plant near the farm Doolittle investigated was cited nine times in 2018 by the US Department of Agriculture for turkeys who’d been mutilated by malfunctioning equipment.

Strangely, despite the horrific reality of turkey farming, we still use the animal as a symbol of giving thanks. Nowhere does the song and dance of celebrating turkeys while we torture them feel more disconcerting than at the White House’s annual turkey pardon.

The mixed message of the White House turkey pardon

Every Thanksgiving, the US president “pardons” a turkey or two in what is essentially a PR stunt for the turkey industry, as the birds are selected by the chair of the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade association. This year, that was Steve Lykken, president of Jennie-O.

The two turkeys selected for this year’s pardon — named Liberty and Bell — could have ended up among the 46 million or so birds on Thanksgiving tables this year. Instead, they were transported from Minnesota, the country’s top turkey-producing state, to Washington, DC, in a stretch black Cadillac Escalade. “They’re on their way in a pretty lavish coach,” Lykken told Minnesota Public Radio.

The annual story makes for feel-good if hammy coverage by the nation’s largest news organizations, but it papers over the darkness of American factory farming — including not just the animal cruelty but also the dangerous working conditions at slaughterhouses, environmental pollution, and unfair treatment of turkey contract farmers.

US President Joe Biden at the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon, standing beside Steve Lykken, president of Jennie-O.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the Jennie-O investigation video.

This year, industry is especially looking forward to the pardon amid the devastating bird flu. The disease, which has been resurging this fall, has resulted in the killing of 11.5 million potentially infected turkeys since early 2022. Increasingly, producers are killing the birds in the most brutal fashion imaginable, deploying a method called “ventilation shutdown plus” that uses industrial heaters to kill them via heatstroke over the course of hours.

“To have something that’s fun, that can draw positive attention to our industry, is very welcomed” in light of the outbreak, Ashley Kohls, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, told Minnesota Public Radio about this year’s pardon.

This week, Liberty and Bell will be moved to the University of Minnesota to live out the rest of their lives. If the turkeys knew what went on there, they might not want to go: The university helped build the state’s turkey industry and still conducts research on turkeys to ensure the industry’s success. The university’s interim president formerly served as the president of Jennie-O and the CEO of Hormel, its parent company.

Meanwhile, Doolittle’s pardoned turkeys, Gabriel and Gilbert, assuming both survive, will spend the rest of their lives at an animal sanctuary, showing humans what these birds can be like when allowed to live on their own terms. “They’re just the most curious, loving, intelligent guys,” Doolittle said.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

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