The U.S. is the biggest producer of turkey meat in the world, home to around 2,500 turkey farms. For the last five decades, consumption of the bird has been steadily increasing. Last year, around 45 million turkeys were killed in the weeks leading to November, destined to end up on Thanksgiving plates. But, due to the ongoing pandemic and shifting attitudes around food, this holiday season might be a little different.
Due to social distancing measures, gatherings will be smaller, meaning many families will be serving up a reduced menu. Instead of opting for big birds, many will be opting for simpler, smaller dishes. And it’s not just the size of the feast that some consumers are changing. More people than ever are also opting for plant-based options over meat.
Back in June, data showed a rush on vegan food in the 16 weeks leading up to April 19. Compared with the same period last year, vegan food sales jumped 90 percent. Some retailers are anticipating that demand for plant-based food will remain strong in the run-up to Thanksgiving. Plant-based roast brand Tofurky is witnessing a spike in orders from retail partners, and Kroger, the biggest supermarket in the U.S., is anticipating higher demand for vegan meat this year.
Top 10 Reasons to Ditch Turkey This Thanksgiving
If you’ve been thinking about serving up a different type of Thanksgiving dinner this year, here are 10 reasons to consider leaving turkey off the table altogether.
1. Turkeys Are Loving
If you’re familiar with Esther the Wonder Pig (one of the most-followed pigs on Instagram), you’ll know that she has a brother called Cornelius. And he’s a turkey.
If you’ve ever had any doubt that turkeys are loving animals, take a scroll through Esther’s Instagram feed. Among all of the pig selfies, you’ll find the odd image or video of Cornelius (affectionately nicknamed Corny or Corno) snuggling up to Esther or her dads, and even getting dressed up in tartan outfits.
Cornelius isn’t alone. It’s a turkey trait to love attention and affection.
According to American animal protection nonprofit Farm Sanctuary, most people don’t realize how endearing turkeys are until they spend time with them. Its website notes: “While many visitors arrive at Farm Sanctuary with an established sympathy for brown-eyed cows and woolly sheep, few depart without a fresh appreciation for the warm, nurturing personalities of turkeys.”
2. Turkeys Are Intelligent
Turkeys like to explore, they can recognize each other by their voices, and they form strong social bonds.
The famous naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto once observed a flock of wild turkeys for a few months. He wrote about the experience, and one particular turkey called Turkey Boy, in his 1995 book Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey.
“Each time I joined [Turkey Boy], he greeted me with his happy dance,” he recalled in the book. “A brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.”
3. Factory Farm Conditions Put Profit Before Welfare
In the U.S., 99 percent of all animal products come from a factory farm environment. Put simply, these farms are designed to optimize meat production. Many farm animals are bred to grow abnormally and unnaturally large, at a fast rate.
Farm Sanctuary notes: “From birth to slaughter, animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to be used for profit.”
On top of this, many only live a small percentage of their natural lifespan. In the wild, turkeys can live up to five years. As a pet, they have been known to live up to 12 years. In a factory farm, they often live for less than one year.
In 2018, more than 200 million turkeys were killed in the U.S. It simply isn’t possible to produce that amount of meat and provide each bird with enough space, light, and ventilation.
“Turkeys raised for human consumption are crowded into poorly ventilated industrial production facilities,” explains Farm Sanctuary. “Sometimes with as many as 10,000 birds packed into a single factory building.”
4. Poultry is a Pandemic Risk
We don’t know for sure where COVID-19 has come from, but scientists do know that it is zoonotic. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 200 types of zoonotic diseases. This means, at some point, they jumped the species barrier from animals to humans.
Due to crowded and poor conditions, many experts fear that factory farms could be the source of the next zoonotic virus outbreak. According to a June report by collaborative investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return, 73 percent of the world’s biggest meat producers score high risk on its Pandemic Ranking scale.
The report noted: “The industrialized model of animal production has been optimized to prioritize both cost and production efficiency, at the expense of multiple other factors, including worker safety, biosecurity, and ultimately, resilience.”
There are two types of pandemic. COVID-19 is viral, and the bubonic plague was bacterial. Factory farms present a risk for both types.
Sonia Shah, an investigative science journalist and critically-acclaimed author, wrote 2017’s Pandemic. She told Vox: “When I was writing my book, I asked my sources what keeps them awake at night. They usually had two answers: virulent avian influenza and highly drug-resistant forms of bacterial pathogens. Both those things are driven by the crowding in factory farms. These are ticking time bombs.”
5. Antibiotic Resistance
As Shah pointed out, it’s not just disease itself that presents a threat to humanity. But it’s also the inability to treat disease, due to drug-resistant viruses and bacteria. This can happen from the overuse of antibiotics, which happens on factory farms.
In the U.S., the poultry industry uses significant amounts of antibiotics.
Physician David Wallinga, M.D., who specializes in the use of antibiotics in livestock production, wrote for the National Resources Defense Council in 2018: “The conventional U.S. livestock industry—in particular its beef, pork, and turkey sectors—raises animals with very intensive use of antibiotics that are also important to human medicine.”
He explains that most of these medicines are fed to animals that are not sick. Rather, it is to “compensate for stressful and unsanitary living conditions.” He added: “The World Health Organization warns that if we want antibiotics to remain useful for treating people when they get sick, we simply must use them better and more responsibly.”
6. Food Poisoning
Eating turkey could also have some immediate health consequences. In 2018, a salmonella outbreak linked to raw turkey spread to 35 states. It caused 164 people to become seriously ill. “The scary part is—this salmonella has been found to be multi drug-resistant,” Dr. Danielle Belardo wrote for LIVEKINDLY at the time. “Why does this occur? Turkeys are crowded into poorly ventilated industrial production facilities, a breeding ground for bacteria.”
E.coli is also a risk. According to the CDC, the bacteria causes 85 percent of urinary tract infections. “Research has shown nine out of 10 samples of turkey have been found to be positive for E. coli,” Belardo continued. “Turkey also had the highest contamination rates E. faecalis and multidrug-resistant E. faecium.”
7. An Increased Risk of Cancer
Belardo also noted that avoiding poultry products, along with other meat, may reduce the risk of cancer. She referred to a study conducted in 1999 on a cohort of 34,192 California Seventh-day Adventists.
Belardo noted: “The Seventh-day Adventists study compared cancer rates of 34,000 vegetarians and meat-eaters. The results showed that those who avoided poultry, as well as meat and fish, had dramatically lower rates of prostate, bladder, and colon cancer than meat-eaters did.”
She’s not alone. Dr. Kristi Funk, a breast cancer surgeon, physician, and author of Breasts: The Owner’s Manual, is also passionate about avoiding animal products. She says that, among other lifestyle changes like exercise and limiting alcohol, it can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
She told LIVEKINDLY: “Meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs create chinks in that armor where breast cancer cells can settle and thrive; animal products increase estrogen, growth hormones (IGF-1), angiogenesis, free radicals, immune system dysfunction, and inflammation.”
8. An Increased Risk of Heart Disease
Last year, a study by the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute found that white meats, like chicken and turkey, increase cholesterol just as much as red meat. Research has linked high cholesterol with a higher risk of heart disease.
The study’s senior author Ronald Krauss, MD said at the time: “When we planned this study, we expected red meat to have a more adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels than white meat, but we were surprised that this was not the case. Their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent.”
Belardo also stated that avoiding meat and instead following a plant-based diet could reduce the risk of heart disease.
She noted: “A prospective cohort study found that all types of vegetables, green leafy vegetables, other raw vegetables, fruit, soy protein, and nuts were inversely associated with heart failure incidence; while poultry, meat, and eggs were positively associated with increased risk of heart failure.”
“Plant-based diets that are low in saturated/trans fats and sodium, but high in antioxidants, micronutrients, dietary nitrate, and fiber are associated with decreased heart failure incidence/severity,” she added.
9. Turkey Farms Are Harmful to the Environment
Turkey farming doesn’t just harm human health, it has a significant impact on the environment too. According to the United Nations, 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry. A 16-pound turkey is estimated to have a carbon footprint of 34.2 pounds of CO2.
In 2018, the biggest-ever food production analysis revealed that going vegan was the most effective change a person can make to reduce their impact on the planet.
Lead researcher Joseph Poore said: “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car … agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this.”
10. You Could Try Vegan Turkey Instead
The good news is, there are many vegan options available that you can choose instead of turkey. Brands like Tofurky and Field Roast offer a number of meaty plant-based roast options, or you could even make your own from scratch. For more information on vegan roast options for Thanksgiving, see here.