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Turkeys that are used for meat production are bred to grow and gain weight very rapidly, with birds ready for processing at around 10 weeks old.
This rapid growth rate may result in severe welfare problems, including leg disorders, a condition called ‘ascites’ (accumulation of fluids in the abdominal cavity resulting from a heart problem) and heart failure. Birds may become so heavy that they suffer from leg weakness, joint problems and bone fractures. Their legs may be unable to support them, leaving them unable to access food and water, and suffering from hock and foot burn due to increased contact with the litter.
The large size of the turkeys also affects stocking density. Lack of space results in lack of exercise, which increases the incidence of lameness. This, in turn, increases the birds’ contact with the litter, causing foot pad burn, hock burn and breast blisters if the litter is not well managed. Turkeys may die from heat stress caused by the cramped conditions in the shed.
Other welfare concerns relate to lighting levels, which, if inadequate, can lead to eye abnormalities, and the barren environment of the growing shed. Turkeys may engage in injurious pecking which ranges from feather pecking to cannibalism.
Once the turkeys have reached slaughter weight, they are packed into crates and transported to the processing plant. On the way, turkeys may die from heat stress or from being crushed during transport.
Upon arrival at the slaughtering plant, turkeys are removed from their crates and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system. They are then stunned in an electrical water bath and have their necks slit by a rotating blade. They are then plucked, cleaned, processed and packed for further distribution. Before slaughter, the birds may experience unnecessary suffering and pain, particularly due to rough handling or shackling of birds with broken bones. An alternative stunning/killing method involves exposing birds to a mixture of gases prior to shackling. They are then unconscious or dead when they are shackled.
The RSPCA is working to improve the welfare standards set out in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry, as well as the welfare standards for the transport and slaughter of turkeys.
Significant welfare problems can be prevented by selecting birds for slower growth rate, by reducing stocking density, by providing appropriate lighting and by providing an environment that encourages natural behaviours.
To learn more about the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme for turkeys visit our website.