Stuffed: the terrible truth about turkeys | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Stuffed: the terrible truth about turkeys

Each year, around 14 million turkeys are slaughtered in the UK – with around 2 million killed in December alone. The vast majority of them spend their short lives in vast industrial sheds and never go outside.

Read more about the factory farming of turkeys

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A Viva! Campaigner describes her experience visiting turkey farms in Norfolk.

Late one night in November 2002, I drove to Norfolk with Louise Port of GMTV, who was joining our investigation into Christmas turkeys. The quiet country roads around Bernard Matthews’ complex at Weston Longville, were deserted. We parked and made our way through a thicket of trees to a long, windlowless barn that stretched away into the darkness. I could only see the one but was aware that this huge site contains somewhere between 40 and 80 sheds.

We slid back the unlocked door, stepped inside and were hit by a fetid stench of stale, warm air, turkey excreta and ammonia. Covering our mouths and noses did little to help. In the dim lighting we could see that all the windows were boarded up. Our camera lights improved visibility and we were faced by a sea of uncomprehending little faces looking at us in what seemed like a parallel world, which few people ever see.

It is a world of cost efficiency where nothing is natural and everything is unreal – no daylight, no fresh air, the constant hum of ventilators, artificial light and perhaps 20,000 miserable lives who have never known it any other way. We stepped inside and the floor squelched beneath our feet – litter, sodden with excreta which would probably not been changed during the birds’ lives.


From one end of the shed to the other we could see nothing but a sea of dirty, bedraggled birds, so crammed in there was barely room for them to move. Directly in front of us, a bird was on her back, legs in the air, her head flopped to one side, convulsing and gasping for breath. She was clearly dying.

For factory farmed turkeys, life consists of shuffling from one foot to the other, pecking at dry pellets in the automatic feeders, taking water from the drinking bells and trying to exist in an area barely bigger than the roasting tin in which they will eventually
be cooked.

Louise and I walked carefully through the packed birds, looking for tiny spaces between them where we could place our feet. Many had swollen, bulging eyes, caused either by infection or constant dust in the air. We found turkey after turkey who had collapsed and couldn’t get up – forced to grow so quickly that their legs could no longer sustain the weight of their own bodies.

‘Starve outs’

We saw birds with broken or deformed legs, pathetically trying to drag themselves along the floor using their outstretched wings as paddles. Many had raw breasts where their feathers had been burnt away by the ammonia in the litter on which they were forced to lie. Throughout the industry, hundreds of thousands of birds – starve outs – die each year of thirst and starvation because they are unable to reach the automated feeders and drinkers. We saw one feeder so clogged with dust no bird could feed from it. The resulting losses are built into the economics of the business.

It is hard to describe the feeling when you stand among thousands of sick, dying and frustrated animals – knowing that their short, miserable lives will end violently in the slaughterhouse – but it isn’t a pleasant one.

Turkey Breeding

We moved on to our next destination, Friars Farm at Morningthorpe – a breeding unit supplying Bernard Matthews with turkey eggs. Breeding stags and laying hens are kept in separate barns and never meet as breeding is carried out by artificial insemination. The birds’ obesity prevents them mating naturally.

We came across a small shed attached to a barn which was divided into several pens, each containing eight or so male turkeys. The shed contained nothing but a chair with an attached vice, a weird arrangement of tubes and, next to it, several boxes full of plastic funnels, pumps and phials. We realised that this was where the masturbation took place.

Every few days, the stags are masturbated by being held in the rack while a worker stimulates their sex glands in order to ‘milk’ them. The semen is sucked into a tube and injected into the females. It is hard to imagine a job more humiliating than being a turkey-masturbator!

What the RSPCA said:

“This is a true picture of intensive turkey production. Having said that, the management of this farm seemed to be really quite disgraceful. We shouldn’t be seeing dead and really sick birds just lying around… it is a disgraceful scene.

I don’t think those birds have been inspected, possibly for days. A lot of our modern breeds of turkeys grow so fast their legs have problems supporting them. We grow these massive birds in a very short space of time so that in itself creates very serious welfare problems…

What we are seeing here is the price of cheap food. We would never hesitate to consider a prosecution if we had evidence. That may not be possible in this case because now that the conditions have been exposed no doubt they have had a rapid clean up at the farm. I am not that impressed by Bernard Matthews’ comments. It doesn’t seem to show a great deal of compassion for the birds and I don’t think that he can get away with saying it was people going in with flashlights which disturbed the birds. That didn’t cause the problems we saw on that farm. That was appalling.”

No prosecution

The RSPCA spent some time examining whether a prosecution might be called for on the basis of our evidence but unfortunately decided that, because it was filmed covertly and the investigators entered the properties without permission, the video evidence would be inadmissable. They also acknowledged that legislation protecting farmed animals – and especially poultry - is so flimsy it’s extremely difficult to secure a prosecution.

The irony, of course, is that the only way of recording a true picture of what goes on inside factory farms is to enter uninvited. If Viva! were to ask to go in and film and take photos, we’d be refused. And if we were given permission to go in, a huge clean-up session would take place and we would be shown a sanitised, thinned out farm with ‘happy’ animals in ‘clean’ and ‘comfortable’ surroundings. But we go in under cover and capture the conditions as they really are and our evidence is deemed unacceptable. It’s a Catch 22 situation. Fortunately, by securing media coverage for our investigations we are able to bring the truth to consumers directly – and give them the opportunity to take action themselves by refusing to support this industry and turning vegetarian.

Gaping Wounds

The turkeys themselves were huge and in an appalling state, particularly the stags. They had big bald patches and wing feathers were spiny and bare with the ends clipped off – perhaps from being repeatedly held in the clamp for masturbation. They moved slowly and laboriously, every step so difficult that they almost wobbled over and lying in the walkway was a dead turkey with a vicious open wound on his chest.

All had beak mutilations – almost half the upper portion of their beaks had 
been chopped off. Debeaking is allegedly undertaken to prevent them pecking each other, a result of boredom and frustration. Rather than address these issues, it is cheaper to mutilate.

Despite this, we saw birds with gaping, bloody wounds and one who had collapsed and struggled to stand. On examining him we found beneath his filthy feathers a hole – a raw wound the size of a hand. There was nothing we could do to end his suffering.

These conditions are replicated on countless other turkey farms up and down the country. This is the grim reality of factory farming.

Media Coverage

Subjecting yourself to this type of mass, institutionalised cruelty is extremely distressing but it is made worthwhile if you can publicise your findings. Often the media are just not interested. But that wasn’t the case this time. The Daily Mail was the first to bite, with a magnificent double-page spread headlined ‘Crippled, Burnt and Dying – Your Christmas Turkey’. The next day, GMTV transmitted our footage three times over the course of the morning’s programme, which has a peak viewing audience of eight million.

They also interviewed the RSPCA’s head of farm animals, Martin Potter, live on air (see box). He strongly criticised Bernard Matthews for the animals’ living conditions and the shocking state of the animals themselves. This exposé was followed by articles in the The Mirror and The Observer Food Monthly magazine. Extraordinarily, ITN followed the news on Friday, December 20, with a long special report slot, again using our footage. Viva! was interviewed on many regional radio stations, while Viva! campaigners appeared on The Late Debate for Granada TV.

The postscript to this extremely successful investigation is that this was the second year running we had exposed Bernard Matthews. Conditions had improved not one jot in the intervening year.

Viva! filmed at a Kerry Foods unit in Bawburgh, Norfolk in November 2001. The turkeys are premium priced, bronze-feathered. Because they have access to a paddock they are labelled ‘free range’. The conditions in the sheds were appalling. Our investigators found dead and injured birds everywhere. In the short time we were inside the shed, we saw at least 40 birds that should have been put out of their misery. For example, a bird with bones exposed through the gaping holes in his flesh. Another with pus dripping from a hole in her body. Many birds had blood on them. The birds were overcrowded. Conditions were a world away from what most of us would imagine as ‘free range’.

Kerry Foods-the company

Kerry Foods is the consumer food division of the Kerry Group. The company started in Co. Kerry, Ireland 27 years ago and is now headquartered in Tralee, Ireland. The Group employs 17,000 people throughout its operations across Europe, North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia Pacific.

Kerry supplies over 10,000 food and food ingredients products to customers in more than 80 countries worldwide. The Group has manufacturing facilities in 15 different countries and international sales offices in 20 countries. 

Launched as a public company in 1986, Kerry Group plc has a current market capitalisation of E2.6 billion (IR£2 billion) with current annualised sales of E3.4billion (IR£2.7 billion). 

Kerry Groups web site boasts: “In ingredient markets Kerry has grown to become one of the largest and most technologically advanced manufacturers of speciality ingredients in the world.”

Considering the terribly sad state of the birds in both turkey and duck units owned by Kerry Foods that Viva! has filmed, it is laughable that Kerry Group further states it has “a commitment to excellence and total quality”. (1)

And that: “a pre-requisite for the production of superior quality food and ingredients is the assurance of high quality raw materials produced from efficient, natural, ‘environmentally friendly’ farming systems”. (1)

Currently the Kerry Foods division spans six categories; savoury, pig meat, dairy, poultry, home baking and convenience/snack products.

Kerry Foods Investments and Acquisitions (1)

Commisioning of Dairy Products facility in Listowel, IRL.

Dairy Disposal Company, IRL.

1974 - 1982
Independent dairies in Killarnry, Limerick, Cork and Galway, IRL. 

Denny, Duffy Meats, IRL. 

Convenience Foods, IRL. Snowcream Dairies. Moate, IRL. 

Denny, N. IRL 

Grove & Ballyfree Turkeys, IRL SWM Chard, UK. 

AE Button, UK Miller-Robirch, UK. 

Buxted Duckling, UK Kantoher Food Products, IRL. 

Kerry Spring Water, IRL. 

Commisioning of Porkmeat Products facility in Shillelagh, IRL. Mattessons Wall’s, UK.

Acquisition of Green's and Homepride home baking business, UK. Commissioning of ready meals production facility in Durham, UK.

Commissioning of recipe dish production and development facilities at Burton-on-Trent, UK.

Platter Foods, Irl
Golden Vale plc, Irl and UK 

Kerry Foods web site states that they are “the only producer in the UK or Irish markets offering the complete range of "speciality" poultry products (including peking/barbary duck, turkey, chicken, goose and guinea fowl). It is also the largest turkey producer in Ireland. It is the biggest supplier of all turkey products to the Irish market - under own-brand and the Ballyfree brand. Kerry's Irish poultry killing facilities are based in Monaghan and Limerick and they have export outlets, in particular to the UK market. Kerry Foods also have slaughterhouses at the Redgrave and Attleborough sites in Norfolk. Kerry Foods claim that their “speciality meats” are “in all major retailer outlets”, and that “the division's leading position in the production of retailer own brand duck products in the UK is complemented by the Watermeadow and Chinatown brands”.

Note: Viva! stopped Kerry Foods debeaking ducks in 2000 as part of its ongoing campaign against the factory farming of ducks. We filmed at a unit in Suffolk that showed filthy, injured, bleeding, dying ducks in a packed shed in 1999 (shown on GMTV). Hillside also filmed ducks at Grange Farm, Redgrave, UK in 2001 - again ducks that are blind, filthy, have diffulty walking (shown on Anglia TV). 



Kerry Foods
Denis Brosnan, Managing Director 
Frank Hayes, Director of Corporate Affairs, Kerry Group plc,
Prince’s Street, Tralee, Co.Kerry, Ireland.
T: 00 353 66 7182304 F: 00 353 66 7182972 
E: W:

Kerry Foods, Thorpe Lea Manor, Thorpe Lea Road,
Egham, Surrey TW20 8HY
T: 01784 430777 F: 01784 470529