Personal Health

Turkey Alert: Beware of Lies About Natural Growth, Chemicals and Humane Treatment

Here are some turkey facts that are definitely not on the label.

Thanksgiving Turkey close-up
Photo Credit: Lori Skelton

As Turkey Day approaches, animal lovers cringe, food safety advocates become vigilante and turkey producers hope you have a short memory. They hope you have forgotten that avian flu and its prevention killed so many turkeys last year—at least 7.5 million—that turkey giant Jennie-O laid off 233 workers. They hope you have forgotten that scientists at the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute found Tylenol, Benadryl, caffeine, statins and Prozac in feather meal samples that included U.S. turkeys—“a surprisingly broad spectrum of prescription and over-the-counter drugs,” said study co-author Rolf Halden of Arizona State University. And finally, Butterball hopes you have forgotten that four of its employees were convicted of sickening animal cruelty and veterinarian Dr. Sarah Mason admits tipping Butterball off about an imminent raid by Hoke County detectives to investigate such humane abuses.

Aware of humane and food safety issues, many buyers are looking to labels to help them in buying their bird. Unfortunately, turkey labels can deceive and even lie. For example “cage free” and “hormone free” are meaningless since cages and hormones are not used in turkey production anyway. Nor does “young” mean anything since all turkeys are young at the time of slaughter—they live just a matter of weeks or months.

Still, here are some turkey facts that are definitely not on the label.

Ractopamine Is Still in Use

Hormones may not be used in turkey production but ractopamine, the asthma-like growth enhancer AlterNet has reported on before, certainly is—and for the same reason: to add muscle weight quickly. Banned in 160 countries and widely viewed as dangerous to animals and humans, ractopamine was approved by the FDA for use in turkey in 2009 under the brand name Topmax. It has never been labeled.

How dangerous is Topmax? This is what its label says:

“NOT FOR HUMAN USE. Warning. The active ingredient in Topmax, ractopamine hydrochloride, is a beta-adrenergic agonist. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children... When mixing and handling Topmax, use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask. Operators should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling.”

It adds an 800 number.

Monkeys fed ractopamine in a Canadian study "developed daily tachycardia"—rapid heart beat. Rats fed ractopamine developed a constellation of birth defects like cleft palate, protruding tongue, short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids and enlarged hearts.

In its new drug application, Elanco, ractopamine’s manufacturer, admitted that ractopamine produced “alterations” in turkey meat such as a “mononuclear cell infiltrate and myofiber degeneration,” “an increase in the incidence of cysts,” and differences, some “significant,” in the weight of organs like hearts, kidneys and livers. Yum.

Antibiotics and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Are Found in Turkey

Antibiotics are widely used in turkey production to produce weight gain with less feed and to stop disease outbreaks from crowded conditions. In fact, when the FDA tried to ban the use of one class of antibiotic—cephalosporins—in 2008, Michael Rybolt, Director, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs, National Turkey Federation said "To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the incidence of illness in turkey flocks." Calling 227-acre turkey operations, "small family farms" (right) Rybolt said antibiotics were actually green because less land is required to grow feed, less land is required to house turkeys and less food means there is less... manure! Antibiotics save almost 2,000 tons of feed a year on a turkey farm with five million hens agreed an article in a poultry journal.

Not all the antibiotics used in U.S. turkey operations are legal suggests the research of scientists at the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute. They found fluoroquinolones in eight of 12 samples of feather meal in a multi-state study. Fluoroquinolones are antibiotics used to treat serious bacterial infections in humans, especially for infections that have become resistant to other antibiotic. They have been banned for livestock use since 2005.

The reason the government and all leading medical groups condemn routine, daily use of antibiotics in livestock is because it encourages the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria which cause potentially lethal infections in people. Almost half of turkey samples purchased at U.S. grocery stores harbored antibiotic resistant infections reported the Los Angeles Times. A serious strains of antibiotic resistant salmonella called Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Hadar forced recalls of turkey products from Jennie-O Turkey. The resistant salmonella strains were so deadly, officials warned that disposed meat should be in sealed garbage cans to protect wild animals. Yes, even wildlife is threatened by the factory farm-created scourges.

Drugs for Turkey Diseases

Industrially produced turkeys are at risk of many disease for which both medicines and vaccines are given. Until 2015, an arsenic containing drug called Nitarsone was FDA approved for the "first six weeks of a turkey’s 20-week life span"; three other arsenic products were rescinded by the FDA in 2012. It is shocking that arsenic has been allowed in U.S. poultry production for almost 50 years since “increasing evidence supports that chronic low-to-moderate iAs [arsenic atoms] exposure levels results in numerous non-cancerous health effects, including cardiovascular, kidney and respiratory disease and diabetes, and cognitive and reproductive defects,” says a scientific paper. Inorganic arsenic is an established human carcinogen, causing cancers of the lung, skin and bladder and possibly cancers of the liver and kidney says other scientific literature.

Turkeys can suffer from Aspergillosis (Brooder Pneumonia), Avian Influenza, Avian Leucosis, Histomoniasis, Coccidiosis, Coronavirus, Erysipelas, Typhoid, TB, Fowl Cholera, Mites, Lice, Herpes, Clostridial dermatitis, Cellulitis and much more—and the treatments are often as scary as the conditions. Consider, for example, the anti-coccidial drug halofuginone which the Federal Register says "is toxic to fish and aquatic life" and "an irritant to eyes and skin.” Users should take care to "Keep [it] out of lakes, ponds, and streams" says the Register. A few years ago, scientists even found the endocrine disrupter Bisphenol A (BPA) in fresh turkey.

Cruelty

Even before 2015’s bird flu in which turkeys were euthanized by suffocation in a way even producers called cruel, industrial produced turkeys have tragic lives. Unable to mate because of the huge chests they are bred to have (many barely able to walk) cruel artificial insemination is conducted—“milking” the males and forcing the semen into the hens against their will. Veterinary journals admit that the chemically-induced fast growth on industrial farms puts turkeys at risk for "sudden death from cardiac problems and aortic rupture," (diagnosed by the presence of large clots of blood around the turkey's lungs) hypertensive angiopathy and pulmonary edema. Growth drugs in turkeys may also "result in leg weakness or paralysis," says the Federal Code.

Because turkeys are drugged and bred to grow so quickly, their legs can't support their own weight and many arrive with broken and dislocated limbs, a “live hanger” who worked undercover at House of Raeford Farms in Raeford, NC, the seventh largest turkey producer in the U.S., told me a few years ago. When you try to remove them from their crates, their legs twist completely around, offering no resistance he told me. “The turkeys must be in a lot of pain but they don't cry out. The only sound you hear as you hang them is trucks being washed out to go back and get a new load."

Like other industrial produced birds, the kill conveyer belt at the slaughterhouse moves so fast, turkeys miss the “stunner” that is supposed to render them insensate and thousands are boiled alive. Yes, you read that right. Reports and photos of the helpless, scorched birds are difficult to look at.

While some food safety and animal rights activists have sought to find turkey producers who do not commit such practices, others warn that so called ethical producers may be disingenuous. “Our birds live in harmony with the environment and we allow them plenty of room to roam,” explains a Diestel Turkey Ranch brochure, displayed at Whole Foods meat counters. But a visit to Diestel’s Jamestown facility conducted by Direct Action investigators over nine months reports Slate “revealed horrific conditions, even by the standards of industrial agriculture.” Turkeys were jammed into overcrowded barns, trapped in piles of feces, had swollen eyes and open sores and “dead turkeys strewn across the barn floor.” Harmony?

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World