Commentary: The aftertaste of cheap meat

UK - Attention has been narrowly focused on the Suffolk farm where the current outbreak of avian flu has occurred. But what do we know about turkey farming - or poultry production in general? How are the birds bred and kept the intensive poultry farms which provide ever cheaper meat for our supermarkets and shopping baskets?
calendar icon 6 February 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

Turkeys, whose wild cousins still live and fly in the forests of North America, have been bred over the years to grow ever larger. The breeding birds are now so huge and have such unnatural amounts of breast meat - that's where the profit lies - that they can no longer mate naturally. The solution? Artificial insemination. This means that, in spite of public distaste and legal prohibitions on bestiality, we actually employ people to masturbate turkey cocks on a regular basis - although the industry prefers to use the innocuous term "milking".

Most turkeys are kept in huge windowless sheds. As on the Suffolk farm at the heart of this outbreak, these sheds have modern systems of environmental control. There is no provision for introducing wild birds (infected or otherwise) via these ventilation systems, contrary to speculation over the weekend. Up to 25,000 birds can be crammed together, with just one person responsible for their health and welfare. The birds will live in this shed for nine to 14 weeks, during which time they will never go outside. Many birds develop arthritis and other painful joint problems as more and more weight presses down on their hips and legs.

Globally, we eat about 670m turkeys and 48bn meat chickens (broilers) every year. These chickens are bred to be big - and to grow big fast. The number of days it takes a chicken to grow to an average slaughter weight (just over 2kg) has been halved, with birds now growing from fluffy yellow chick to supermarket-ready in as little as 37 days.

The chickens' skeletal structure has difficulty in supporting their huge meaty breasts. Overweight and ungainly, the chickens sink down on the litter floor for longer and longer. But the litter (usually wood shavings) becomes dirtier and smellier as the weeks go by and the droppings accumulate. Ammonia builds up and the chickens' legs and feet are often burned. A recent Defra report showed over 27% of broiler chickens had moderate-to-severe leg disorders that impaired their ability to move.

Source: Guardian Unlimited

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