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What Turkey Producers Won't Tell You

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Thanks to humane scandals at Butterball, Aviagen Turkeys and House of Raeford, many are aware of the cruel handling in commercial turkey production. Fewer people are aware of the food additives and fast-growth methods that put both turkeys and the people who eat them at risk.

This month the Associated Press reported that some US turkeys are being fed beer to make them "fatter, more flavorful and juicier." After drinking the alcohol, one bird "appeared rather dazed, with eyes narrowed to slits and beer dribbling out of its beak," reported AP. Imbibing birds may sound innocuous or funny but other human fare turkeys are given is not as amusing. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Arizona State University examined feather meal from US chickens and turkeys and found traces of the pain reliever acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), the antihistamine diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) and the antidepressant fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac). Turkey producers are even looking at giving turkeys statins like Zocor.

Arsenic In Your Turkey

turkey butterball

Like antibiotics, arsenic has been routinely used in turkey and other livestock feed to prevent disease, increase feed efficiency and promote growth. Last month, the FDA announced it was rescinding three of four arsenic products that few knew were used in turkey production anyway. One drug, Nitarsone, is still in use, though, for the "first six weeks of a turkey's 20-week life span" says the National Turkey Federation to treat a disease called histomoniasis. In fact, the Code of Federal Regulations for turkey drugs reveals a long list of permitted drugs with long names that don't make you want to reach for the cranberry sauce. Halofuginone, given to turkeys to kill pathogens, "is toxic to fish and aquatic life" and "an irritant to eyes and skin," says the Federal Code. "Avoid contact with skin, eyes, or clothing" and "Keep out of lakes, ponds, and streams."

Chemically-Induced Fast Growth

Chemically-induced fast growth puts turkeys at risk for "sudden death from cardiac problems and aortic rupture," (diagnosed by the presence of large clots of blood around the turkey's lungs) hypertensive angiopathy and pulmonary edema. Growth drugs in turkeys may also "result in leg weakness or paralysis," says the Federal Code, a side effect that a turkey slaughterhouse worker at the House of Raeford, in Raeford, NC reported firsthand. Turkeys arrive with legs broken, dislocated and limp, he told the press. Slowing the rapid growth by reducing the excessive energy and protein in the turkeys' diets strengthens their bones say poultry scientists-something most turkey growers don't want to hear or do.

According to veterinary journals turkeys also arrive at the slaughterhouse with painful footpad lesions, swelling and dermatitis, deviated toes, arthritis, feathering picking and breast blisters. "Overcrowding, aggressive birds, poor-wet litter...and poor hygienic conditions" produce the new emerging turkey diseases of Clostridial dermatitis and cellulitis. "The disease is characterized by reddish to dark or greenish discoloration of the skin around the thighs, abdomen, keel, tail region, back, and wings," says another veterinary journal. "The lesions can extend into the underlying muscles, and there can be gas bubbles under the skin which result in crepitation. Some cases present with dead birds having 'bubbly tail,' fluid-filled blisters associated with broken feather follicles around the base of the tail."

Defect Meat Nothing To Be Thankful For

Breeding turkeys for rapid growth rate and breast muscle mass has also coincided with an "increasing incidence of pale, soft and exudative (PSE) meat defect, especially in response to heat stress," says another veterinary journal. A similar defect called PSE, Pale, Soft, Exudative, is seen in mass-produced pork. Ractopamine, the asthma-like growth enhancer marketed as Topmax in turkey also changes the quality of meat, according to its manufacturer's own data. Turkey meat produced with ractopamine has "alterations" in muscle such as a "mononuclear cell infiltrate and myofiber degeneration," says drug information from Elanco on which the drug was approved. There was "an increase in the incidence of cysts," and differences, some "significant," in the weight of organs like hearts, kidneys and livers.

Thanks to turkey growers' desire to produce the maximum amount of fat turkeys with as little feed as possible in as little time as possible, neither today's turkeys or the people who eat them have much to be thankful for.

Do you care about food safety and animal treatment? Give Martha Rosenberg's award-cited, Random House expose, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, for the holidays! Includes 30 cartoons.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health Read more stories by Martha Rosenberg.

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