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November 25, 2019

Let’s Talk Turkey: The Law Fails To Provide Even Basic Protections To Birds Used For Food

  • Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

As families gather across the country to celebrate Thanksgiving, the centerpiece of the feast is typically a turkey. Americans are expected to slaughter approximately 46 million turkeys this Thanksgiving. Annually, approximately 237 million turkeys are slaughtered in the U.S., according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Given the sheer volume of turkeys that Americans kill each year, one might think that there is at least a panoply of state and federal laws that carefully prescribe how turkeys are raised, shipped, and eventually slaughtered. You may be surprised to learn, that assumption about the law is wrong.

While many people assume turkeys are raised in picturesque free-range pastures, analyses show that 99.8% of turkeys are raised on factory farms, where they are tightly confined, lack basic comforts, and their short lives are miserable. As the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board summarized, on factory farms, turkeys are grown “so big that they can barely walk by the time they are killed. As a result, they can suffer from painful skeletal disorders and leg deformities. The vast majority spend their short lives … in artificially lit, windowless, barren warehouse barns. So that turkeys won’t peck one another in these crowded barns, their beaks are painfully trimmed.” Yet there is no federal law that protects turkeys (or any other farmed animal) while being raised on factory farms. Many people assume that the federal Animal Welfare Act provides protection while animals are being raised for food. However, the Animal Welfare Act specifically excludes farmed animals from its protections. 

State animal cruelty laws do not fare much better. Most are commonly interpreted in superficial and meaningless ways when applied to farmed animals. In fact, most state anti-cruelty laws have specific exemptions for animals raised for food, limiting the capacity of these laws to protect farmed animals like turkeys.  

The situation does not improve for turkeys or other birds once they are shipped for slaughter. In the U.S., the 28 Hour Law requires vehicles transporting animals to stop every 28 hours to allow the animals exercise, food and water. The USDA has refused to apply the 28 Hour Law to birds, even though they are clearly animals.

After transport, the situation continues to get worse for turkeys. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act— which requires humane handling of animals during and in connection with slaughter—incredibly has been interpreted by the USDA not to apply to turkeys or other birds. Turkeys commonly suffer tremendously at slaughter plants, as has been detailed by investigations and also explained by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.  Birds are left for days without food, water, or shelter from the elements, even dying in large numbers as a result of the neglect. In slaughter lines, live birds are shackled upside down and are supposed to be stunned unconscious by electrified water before being dragged over throat-cutting blades. But, “sometimes the birds miss the blades and end up tumbling into the tanks of scalding water, where they drown. Unfortunately, prior attempts to apply the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to turkeys and other birds have been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of turkeys continue to suffer.

Given the state of the law, there is so much that needs to be done to improve the law for turkeys and other farmed animals. That’s why at the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS), we launched the first-of-its kind Animal Law Litigation Clinic earlier this fall to advocate for protections for farmed animals. Lewis & Clark Law School Professor and Clinic Director Delcianna Winders says her students are “passionate and committed to working to change a legal system that fails to consider the interests of farmed animals.” Given how far we have to go, how does Professor Winders keep clinic students from getting discouraged? She says: “I remind them that most Americans are on their side—polling consistently shows that the vast majority of Americans (94%) agree that farmed animals deserve to live free from cruelty—and I remind them that by fighting for animals, they are on the front lines of the social justice movement of our time.”