Thanksgiving turkeys nowadays are huge, have hunched frames and move much less than turkeys from the 1930s, according to a recent article from MotherJones about America’s favorite November meat.

Oh, also, farm turkeys now are often debeaked, bowlegged and can have footpad sores and breast blisters.

How did this happen? MoJo asked Suzanne McMillan, senior director of the farm animal welfare campaign, who said it wasn’t by accident.

From the story:

Up until the 1950s, turkeys found on Thanksgiving tables were essentially the same as their wild counterparts. But then, says McMillan, American poultry operations began to expand to meet Americans’ growing demand for meat. Turkey farmers began to selectively breed birds for both size and speed of growth—especially in the breast, the most popular cut among American diners.

The birds grew so fast that their frames could not support their weight, and as a result, many turkeys were bowlegged and could no longer stand upright. The male turkeys, or toms, got so big—as heavy as 50 pounds—that they could no longer manage to transfer semen to hens. Today, reproduction happens almost exclusively through artificial insemination.

Turkey farms were eventually moved indoors to control operations better. In tight quarters, birds developed infections and sores on their breasts and footpads, the article explains. Producers started spiking bird feed with antibiotics to fight infection. All those birds in tight quarters also meant birds sometimes cannibalized, so producers started trimming their beaks when they were a few days old.


More turkey facts from the article:

  • Turkey consumption has doubled over the last 30 years and the average American eats 16 pounds of turkey a year, according to The National Turkey Federation.
  • Americans toss more than 1/3 of “all edible turkey meat every year.”

If you’re searching for a turkey that was raised in more humane conditions, check out Grist’s guide.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or at Follow her on Twitter @khantasha.

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Natasha is PublicSource's creative director. She runs the organizations visuals team, edits and produces interactive graphics, data visualizations and web packages for PublicSource. She manages the website...