Turkey Fact Sheet | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Viva! Turkey Fact Sheet

Walking in a winter wonderland? Your Christmas dinner won’t be. In fact, most turkeys don’t even see the outdoors until they’re on their way to slaughter. Crowded together in dark, dank, windowless sheds their short lives are filled with pain, misery and a cocktail of antibiotics to curb disease. Give turkeys the gift of life and choose a cruelty-free vegan Christmas with Viva

Turkeys in their natural state

Wild turkeys live in North and Central America - in fact Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird of the US instead of the Bald Eagle. They are striking and handsome, graceful and intelligent. They roost in trees and roam in woodlands, eating vegetation and insects. They live in harems - the mothers being very protective of their young. An adult bird can fly up to 55 mph. 

Conditions in turkey farms

There are three main systems of turkey rearing: 


A. Windowless units.

The most common system, where up to 25,000 turkeys can be kept in one shed, makes up around 90 per cent of turkey accommodation in Britain. The birds are crowded together like broiler chickens, on a litter floor. There is a lot of faeces in poultry litter which results in a build-up of ammonia. Turkeys develop ulcerated feet and have painful burns on their legs and breasts as they spend their short lives standing on litter, which often becomes wet and dirty. Low lighting is used to discourage aggression, since the birds can become stressed and frustrated by these living conditions and resort to feather plucking and in some cases cannibalism. Dim lighting can also cause reduced activity levels and results in abnormalities in growth, affecting their eyes and legs.

Turkeys are crammed into sheds in their thousands on British farms. Most of their natural instincts frustrated. In this Bernard Matthews farm investigators filmed severe overcrowding during November 2018.

B. Pole barns.

These allow daylight and ventilation but conditions are still grossly overcrowded. Stress causes fighting and birds attack each other's eyes and toes.

C. Free-range.

On free-range farms, turkeys may be afforded as little as 10 square metres per bird, or 1,000 birds per hectare. They may be subjected to the same mutilations as more intensively-reared birds, and those labelled as ‘organic’ are additionally not afforded antibiotics. Both intensively reared and free-range turkeys are susceptible to diseases - including bird flu.

Slaughter age

Turkeys would live up to 10 years of age in the wild. Farmed turkeys are usually slaughtered between the ages of 12 and 26 weeks, although according to Defra some are as young as eight weeks.

Hen turkeys are slaughtered between nine and 11 weeks of their lives.

Mortality rate

Between five and 15 per cent of turkeys die in sheds each year. Many die because they never learn to reach the food and water points ('starve-outs'). Others die from disease or as a result of growing too quickly. Diseases (discussed below) can lead the mortality rates to skyrocket.


Turkeys peck at each other's feathers, toes and eyes when overcrowded. Sometimes their eyeballs are destroyed by the pecking. Cannibalism can be common in intensive farms. Turkeys are often kept in near darkness to discourage cannibalism. In the wild, turkeys would not be aggressive but on factory farms birds are driven to aggression by the conditions in which they are kept.


Although some debeaking is practiced on British farms, premature death and cannibalism are still common.

Almost all turkeys used for breeding and around ten per cent of all turkeys raised for meat are debeaked. When turkeys are only a few days old, their beaks are partially amputated - a section of the upper beak is cut off with a red-hot blade or trimmed with an infrared light. Research indicates that the amputation results in chronic pain similar to 'phantom limb pain' in human amputees and can be permanent. Birds have been observed over a 56 week period showing signs of behaviour associated with long-term chronic pain and depression following partial beak amputation.

In another study at Roslin Institute in Scotland, beak trimmed turkeys had lower body weights than those who had not been trimmed, suggesting that weight loss was due to the pain caused by eating.

In 2010, the Government dropped plans to outlaw debeaking a year later. Its delayed implementation in 2016 was also abandoned. This is despite successful bans in other countries in Europe such as Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Toe removal is also performed on male breeding birds which can result in open wounds, blood loss and pain.

Desnooding is practiced to minimalise cannibalism. This is where the long fleshy appendage extending from the front of a turkey's head over its upper back is removed with an instrument or pulled off.

When farmers want to prevent turkeys from flying, dewinging is carried out where the flight feathers of one wing is clipped.


The abuse of turkeys in intensive systems has been recorded by several animal protection groups.

Viva! Campaigns filmed undercover inside Bernard Matthews' turkey sheds three years in a row. Footage showed lame and injured birds as well as piles of dead birds, seemingly suffering from skin and foot damage caused by conditions within the sheds. These consistently poor standards are potentially due to a combination of corporate avarice and the almost total absence of legal protection for turkeys in the UK.

In 2006, filming by Hillside Animal Sanctuary revealed catchers in a Bernard Matthews' Farm playing baseball with live turkeys. These men were prosecuted, but such activity goes on behind closed doors. In 2007, the sanctuary again obtained footage of Bernard Matthews' employees kicking turkeys as they were being rounded up for slaughter.

Investigators for Viva! Campaigns filmed at a farm in 2008 that supplied the RSPCA's Freedom Foods with turkeys. Many had leg deformities and injuries, with some birds demonstrating difficulty walking. Others had facial injuries including bloody, wounded snoods. In 2016, Viva! Campaigns also released footage taken at Kelly Turkeys, whose birds are energetically promoted by celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson. The footage, which was featured in The Independent newspaper, showed dead birds so tightly crammed into feeders that the living were unable to feed.


UK slaughter legislation states that birds may be killed by decapitation or dislocation of the neck. These procedures do not require a license, provided that they are carried out on the premises that the bird was reared.

Neck dislocation is the most widely used method of slaughter on small-scale farms. Scientists have expressed concern about the effectiveness of neck dislocation in poultry. They tried crushing and stretching the necks of birds (which is similar to manual neck dislocation) and concluded that, "neither method consistently produced concussion and it is uncertain whether they cause instantaneous unconsciousness”.

If turkeys are not killed on the farm at which they are reared, they are transported live to a slaughterhouse or ‘processing plant’. Prior to that turkeys are caught from the rearing sheds and stuffed into crates for transportation. Rough handling often causes severe bruising and injury. At the slaughterhouse the birds may be hung upside down with their feet in shackles for up to three minutes before they are stunned in an electrified water bath and go on to have their throats slit. Birds are in great distress at this point, especially those with diseased hip joints or legs.

The electric water bath is supposed to stun the birds, yet turkeys tend to arch their necks whilst hanging upside down and so many missed the bath entirely and will not be stunned before they reach the neck cutter. Each year, conservative estimates suggest that around 30-40,000 will then enter the scalding tank alive. Around 43 per cent of birds have been demonstrated to receive painful electric shocks before being stunned because their wings touch the electrically-charged water.

An increased number of turkeys are killed by gassing with a mixture of gasses. These gases include co2, which is aversive and causes desperate panic as birds fight for air.

Production & Consumption

In 2014, 14.8 per cent of all poultry meat eaten across the EU was from turkeys. Turkey production in the EU is concentrated in just a few Member States. Five countries - Germany, France, Italy, UK and Poland - produce more than 88 per cent of all EU turkey meat.

Slaughter figures suggest that turkey consumption has decreased in the UK. In 1997 there were 40 million turkeys slaughtered; in 2004 over 21 million, and in 2018, 15 million - an increase of one million since 2017.


Reproduction in today's turkey industry is by artificial insemination (AI).

The modern turkey, like the broiler chicken, has been genetically selected to put on weight twice as fast as its counterpart in the wild. Now, male turkeys are too broad-breasted to mate naturally. In the wild, the turkey can fly up to speeds of 50mph, yet the modern male farmed variety cannot fly. Breeding turkeys can weigh as much as an 8-9 year old child (60lbs). It is now common practice to impregnate a significantly smaller hen from one strain with a large stag on the never-ending quest to produce larger birds. AI is an incredibly stressful procedure for both males and females.

Collecting the semen

Two or three times a week the males are 'milked' of their semen by teams of operators whose jobs are to manipulate the males' anal area until the phallus is erect (a form of human-to-bird masturbation) and semen is ejected, helped along by the pressure on the lower abdomen.

Insemination of the females

Female turkeys are caught and held upside down, while semen is introduced into the vagina by hypodermic syringe or the operator's breath pressure, through a length of tubing. This process is called 'cracking'. The repeated stress imposed by AI is extreme and unacceptable in welfare terms and can lead to injury of the birds if performed incorrectly.

Eggs and chicks

All factory farmed turkeys never meet their mothers. Whereas, naturally, the mother turkey would communicate with her chicks while they are in the egg and following their birth. In intensive turkey farming, fertile eggs are transferred to the hatchery. This means that the chicks are denied their natural start in life.

After 28 days in an incubating cabinet, the poults are hatched. At a day old the turkey chicks are transported to growing sheds with up to 25,000 chicks the same age. The lighting is dim and the heat is kept permanently high. Many chicks die from heat, stress, heart attack, bullying, or starvation since many are unable to find the food and water points without the guidance of their mothers.


Most turkeys suffer from degeneration of the hip joints. In the ball and socket mechanism of this joint, much of the weight is distributed through a pad of cartilage. Under the stress of carrying an unnaturally heavy body, the structure breaks down, leading to degeneration of the joint. This leads to severe lesions and pain.

Footpad dermatitis (FPD) is contact dermatitis of poultry associated with an immune response to wet litter that affects the feet. It is common in commercially grown turkeys (as well as broiler chickens) with as many as 41 per cent suffering severe lesions (ulcers) and up to 78 per cent mild lesions (Footpad dermatitis and pain assessment in turkey poults using analgesia and objective gait analysis, British Poultry Science, 2015). Turkeys on modern intensive farms have no way of avoiding the wet floor.

The last decade has thrown up numerous examples of new diseases in turkeys. These include Rhinotracheitis, Paramyxovirus 2, and Salmonella enteritidis - a major new bacterial source of human food poisoning that can cause arthritis, blood disease, impaired immunity, and death.

Other diseases include Blackhead disease, Ornithobacterium rhinotracheale and most recently Avian Influenza, H5NI or Bird Flu.

Routine use of antibiotics to combat the filthy and unhygienic conditions on factory farms is leading to the immunity of bacteria against antibiotics, which is a cause of the creation of superbugs. Turkeys kept in intensive systems have weakened immune systems, which encourages the spread of infection. This is posing a serious threat not only to the birds themselves, but also to humans as a strain of the virus is likely to mutate into a human form of the disease.

In February 2007, an outbreak of H5NI occurred on a Bernard Matthews turkey farm, the most likely source being its imported meat from Hungary. The company was heavily criticised, as an official inquiry found that the firm had failed to rectify a series of health and hygiene failures that allowed the virus to spread. In 2013, thousands of turkeys were again treated for the symptoms of bird flu at a factory farm operated by the company. The virus can live for over a month in cold weather and outside live birds, such as in faeces. In 2015 and 2016, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses as well as detections of low pathogenic avian influenza viruses A(H5N2) were reported in poultry.

Avian metapneumovirus infection (TRT) is highly prevalent in turkeys in the UK and is the most common cause of viral disease in turkeys, predisposing turkeys to other diseases such as E.coli and Ornithobacterium rhinotrachaeli.

An active ingredient in some of the antibiotics (including Baytril 10 per cent Oral Solution) given to turkeys is enrofloxacin, which is a form of fluoroquinolone. The use of this substance has been banned in poultry production in the US, yet continues to be available and used in the UK. It is added to the drinking water of turkeys. About half a tonne of active ingredient of this antibiotic was sold for use in poultry production in 2015 to British Poultry Council members (which represent circa 90 per cent of all poultry killed for meat in the UK). Most of this was for turkey production. When questioned by the Farm Animal Welfare Network, the US Food and Drugs Administration's Centre for Veterinary Medicine stated that the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry "causes the development of fluoroquinolone-resistant Camplyobacter, a pathogen to humans, in poultry", which is "a hazard to human health. Campylobacter is a major cause of food poisoning in humans who have handled raw meat or cooked it insufficiently. Many people suffer from prolonged illnesses, causing hospitalisation, seizures and pseudo-appendicitis.

Turkeys are reared to be pathologically obese. They have clogged coronary vessels, distended fluid-filled pericardial sac, abdominal fluid and a gelatin-covered enlarged congested liver. Their hearts can actually explode.

Artificial insemination spreads fowl cholera, a major bacterial disease of intensively reared turkeys.


Throughout their lives, turkeys may be given antibiotics and other drugs to prevent or treat infections caused by worms, fungi, bacteria and other microbes. More than a dozen antibiotics are approved for use in chickens and turkeys, including erythromycin, penicillin, tetracycline and virginiamycin.