Thanksgiving: The Truth Regarding Free-Range Turkeys

As Thanksgiving Day draws near, millions of concerned consumers around America begin to ask themselves the question of how to make their holiday meal more ‘humane’. For many families, the answer to this dilemma will appear to be the purchase of a ‘free-range’ turkey. As consumers are becoming more aware of conditions on factory farms, the poultry industry now estimates that nearly two percent of American homes eat free-range turkeys during the holiday season.

But what does this label really mean, and are consumers simply being duped into paying more money for products that do not really represent a significant difference in terms of the lives and welfare of the animals concerned?

First of all, let’s look at the most basic assumption we tend to have about any product bearing the label ‘free-range’, which is the idea that the animal in question was raised in conditions that allowed him or her to roam freely in an open area.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the only condition for free-range birds is that they have access to the outdoors. However, the size of the outdoor area is unregulated, so it is often nothing more than a tiny dirt lot. For birds raised during the winter months, there is no requirement for outside access at all.

As the USDA does not place a limit on free-range flock size, turkeys are often crowded together, and are frequently fenced in corrals, not running around the farm, as many consumers like to imagine. In some cases, thousands of turkeys are raised in a single warehouse-like structure, forced to live with accumulated fecal waste and ammonia fumes, just like their cousins, the egg-laying hens who produce ‘cage-free’ eggs.

Horrific mutilations, from debeaking to toe removal, are still allowed at free-range farms. These mutilations cause severe pain for the birds and can make eating and walking difficult. And just like conventionally-raised turkeys, free-range turkeys are genetically manipulated to grow at an unnaturally rapid rate, resulting in permanent health problems, including crippling joint disorders and heart failure. Premature death for free-range turkeys is common.

But most important of all, is that when they reach ‘slaughter-age’, after around 14 to 25 weeks, turkeys are transported, in all types of weather, in overcrowded wire cages, on multi-tiered, flat-bed trucks. When they arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are hung by their legs while still fully-conscious, and their throats are slashed.

Since the definitions for the ‘free-range’ label are deliberately vague and hundreds of millions of turkeys are considered nothing more than economic commodities to both owners and regulators, regulating the conditions for animals in any meaningful way is impossible. In order to obtain approval for the ‘free-range’ label, poultry producers must only provide the USDA with a brief description of the conditions for their birds, and their claims are very rarely verified by inspections.

This information might be disheartening for consumers who have turned to ‘free-range’ labels in the hopes of making an ethical choice, but it really should come as no surprise. As long as we continue to view animals as commodities, who exist to serve our desires and whose rights can be violated in the name of profit, they will continue to suffer, often unbearably, in a range of various confinement situations.

For a truly humane Thanksgiving, there is only one option, and that is to withdraw your order for the slaughter of a bird. No matter how your turkey was treated, whether raised indoors, outdoors, or in a botanical garden, he or she will have to be killed, to end up on your table.

As pointed out by Gary Steiner in Animal, Vegetable, Miserable, a superb Op-Ed piece published recently in the New York Times:

“None of these questions, however, make any consideration of whether it is wrong to kill animals for human consumption… We have been trained by a history of thinking of which we are scarcely aware to view non-human animals as resources we are entitled to employ in whatever ways we see fit in order to satisfy our needs and desires. Yes, there are animal welfare laws. But these laws have been formulated by, and are enforced by, people who proceed from the proposition that animals are fundamentally inferior to human beings. At best, these laws make living conditions for animals marginally better than they would be otherwise — right up to the point when we send them to the slaughterhouse… Think about that when you’re picking out your free-range turkey, which has absolutely nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. All it ever had was a short and miserable life, thanks to us intelligent, compassionate humans.”

(For a collection of vegan Thanksgiving recipes that will cover your whole holiday menu, please read Vegan Thanksgiving Recipes)

Image: Tom Curtis /


Cheryl B.
Cheryl B6 years ago

thanks for telling the world

Annabeth K.
Annabeth Karson7 years ago

Humans do not treat other animals any worse that humans treat humans. We starve, torture and slaughter entire communities of people to gain power, or out of greed or anger. Until humans treat humans well, the treatment of other animals is likely to remain the same. If you want to change conditions for other animals, you might start with changing the conditions of humans who are starving, sick, or terrorized by other humans. I question whether we can change the ways humans to treat other animals until we change the ways humans allow each other to be treated.

Glynis M.
Glynis Martin8 years ago

Does this also pertain to free range eggs?

norma s.
norma s8 years ago

"The world is full of trickery," and I am afraid that I am "blinded to what Truth there is." I do not trust all the fancy labels. The only answer is "vegetation can feed the nation."

Judith K.
Judith K.8 years ago

After posting my protest about mistreatment and torture of food animals, I am re-iterating my initial revulsion of the way food animals" are slaughter. I have read quite a lot about it and am more positive, after seeing how many more articles support my position on "food animal" cruelty.

Sue Leis
Sue L8 years ago

This reminds me of a friend of mine who's son came home from college insisting the Thanksgiving turkey must be organic and free range. She obliged and planned to do the same the next year only to be told the son was now vegetarian. It is a gradual process for many people to really examine where their food comes from and just what they are consuming. As a life long meat eater I am just beginning to examine my behavior and whether I want to make changes in my eating habits.

Asa H.
Asa H.8 years ago

I'll keep it short.

As long as the animal lived a happy life and was killed humanely I think that it's acceptable to eat as that is the cycle of life, we care alot about animal well-fare and spend £90 pounds (about $150) on a free range organic turkey and the standards of living are very high, but we don't eat meat every day and normally it only makes a small part of our meal. (unlike most americans)

I said most.

Lauren Hale
Lauren Hale8 years ago

poor turkeys :-(

Catherine Turley
Catherine Turley8 years ago

i just don't see why it is irrational to consider a scenario even if it is unlikely? all our lives, we have heard 'what if the tables were turned'. in regard to animal treatment, we can only imagine a superior species or an animal that evolves beyond our control. man has a history of thinking immoral acts to be moral. it is entirely logical to examine our habits routinely.

Isobella M.

I am going vegetarian because I cannot stand to think that an animal suffered and died for my consumption. All my life I've eaten meat without ever thinking of how it went from a living , breathing, and completely sensitive to pain animal to the filling of my sandwich or the barbeque ribs I've eaten. My ignorance is over. Next year I'll try a tofu turkey and I'll be getting my taste of meat from Boca and other meatless brands of meat flavored foods. I may even try to make some veggie burgers out of my new vegetarian cookbook!
Also, anyone that thinks that animals somehow derive pleasure from being kept in hideous conditions, being castrated without any anesthetic, and have their throats slashed or die some other unimaginable way is crazy and uninformed. It's as plain as the nose on your face that animals feel pain and suffer. To think that they don't is foolishness. Watch an undercover video of the practices that go on in these places and look at their expressions and hear them screaming and then tell me that they get pleasure from it or that they don't feel anything! They certainly do.