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Finding the President’s Turkey

If a top-rated farm like Jaindl has such disturbing conditions, what can we expect of typical farms?

Every year for the last 50, prestigious Jaindl Farms in Orefield, Pennsylvania, has supplied the White House turkeys that sit atop the holiday table for the thanksgiving feast. Jaindl — a Whole Foods supplier that claims to be in the 98th percentile for animal welfare and 95th percentile for food safety according to audits — is exactly the sort of farm you would expect the president to receive his turkey from, at least on paper. The turkeys from Jaindl are gifted to the president. I recently visited Jaindl with a team of animal farm investigators, and what I saw did not match what I read on paper.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Jaindl was the smell. The filth in the air made it hard for me to breathe for a few minutes — let alone turkeys for their entire lives. The second thing I noticed was turkeys with a feature you never see in videos: beaks with browned, burnt tips from the practice of debeaking, which Jaindl does via infrared heat. A bird’s beak is equivalent to a human finger, sensitive and full of nerve endings, but turkeys will peck each other in crowded situations, so farms burn their beaks off. There’s a standard term — starveout — for the frequent occurrence of turkeys starving to death from botched debeakings.

Perhaps most terrifying was the crowd of turkeys so large that it receded into the distance. Whenever a turkey flapped her wings, the whole crowd moved. It’s easy to see how someone could get trampled, repeatedly, every single day.

It was hard to notice any individual turkeys in the massive crowd, but one little bird (whom we named “Avery Harika”) hobbling around on broken and injured legs stuck out. My fellow investigator pointed Avery out to me: she was too injured to move by her own volition. A hole on Avery’s head had scabbed over, and another scabbed hole was on her body from pecking by other birds; Avery was being left to die, so we made a decision: We would take Avery to the vet for medical care and give her a chance at survival. The vet told us that Avery was malnourished and had swollen legs — when birds are sick on farms like Jaindl they generally get thrown out of the way by other birds and forced to starve. We gave her medicine and took her to a sanctuary to have the care she deserved.

Every year, though, many more turkeys like Avery have a similar fate. Jaindl alone sells over 750,000 turkeys to regional outfits like Wegmans and nationally at Whole Foods, a company well known for its ethical offerings and animal welfare standards. Some of Jaindl’s turkeys are even labeled “free range,” although we saw no signs of them going outdoors. Investigations of Whole Foods and other “compassionate” retailers, however, have found repeated animal abuse, from a Certified Humane egg facility to a respected pork supplier. These experiences bring into question the very meaning of “humanely raised” marketing. If a top-rated farm like Jaindl has such disturbing conditions, what can we expect of typical farms?