This Thanksgiving, Don't Be Bamboozled by Butterball's 'Humane' Turkeys

Frozen Butterball Turkeys are shown before being distributed to needy families by boxing promoter Don King  during a stop on
Frozen Butterball Turkeys are shown before being distributed to needy families by boxing promoter Don King during a stop on his "Turkey Tour," Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 in Doral, Fla. King, who has been distributing turkeys for over 50 years, was forced to postpone the event in South Florida by a week when a truckload of the birds went missing. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Earlier this month, PETA filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking that it compel Butterball to stop misleading consumers about its procedures for raising and killing turkeys. Butterball participates in the American Humane Association's American Humane Certified (AHC) program and can slap "humane certified" labels on its products, even though its turkeys suffered immensely before arriving on supermarket shelves. AHC standards allow producers to crowd turkeys into dark sheds that reek of ammonia; amputate their toes and cut off their beaks, which causes acute and chronic pain; hang them upside down by their legs; and then electrocute them. In other words -- it's the same old same old.

Although the meat industry would like us to believe that we can have our turkey breasts and bacon everything with a clear conscience, that's a bigger load of manure than even a factory farm generates. It's a gimmick. The only 100 percent "humane" meat is no meat at all.

It may make people feel better about burgers and pork chops to imagine that the animals were lovingly cared for until the day they were slaughtered for no good reason, but that's wishful thinking. Because of the demand for cheap meat, most flesh in the supermarket comes from factory farms, where animals are warehoused in dark, crowded sheds. Their eyes and lungs burn from the stench of ammonia, and they are castrated and dehorned and have parts of their beaks seared off with a hot wire -- all without the benefit of painkillers. Animals on many so-called "humane" farms may have had one or two -- or if they're lucky, several -- minor improvements made to their otherwise bleak living conditions, but they're still living on factory farms.

Of course, the meat industry doesn't like the term "factory farm," but as investigative journalist Ted Genoways points out in his new book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, today's animal farming "is designed on a factory model, carried out with the exactitude of a factory, and built around serving the needs of other factories -- the packinghouses, the packagers, shipping warehouses -- farther along the supply chain."

For its part, Butterball has a long history of abusing turkeys. A PETA eyewitness investigation at a Butterball slaughterhouse in Arkansas revealed that the company's workers punched and stomped on live turkeys and slammed them against walls. Butterball workers also grind up live baby turkeys and mutilate turkeys' beaks and toes -- cruelty that does not violate industry or AHC standards. AHC producers do not even need to meet all the AHC standards -- lax as they are -- to obtain certification and the right to stamp the "humane" label on their products.

Buying "humane meat" means supporting an industry that treats animals as nothing more than units on an assembly line -- a means to an end. It means looking the other way as terrified animals are hauled down a highway for the first (and last) time ever, in all weather extremes on their way to slaughter. It means endorsing animals' final moments as they are hung upside down by one leg and have their throats cut. I have seen slaughter, and I can tell you about the look in the eyes of the animals. As they are prodded and kicked along to their death, they can smell, hear and see what is happening to those in front of them in the slaughter line.

No animal wants to be killed, yet no commercially available meat is obtained without the slaughterhouse. AHC-labeled turkeys may end up at the same slaughterhouses as industry-standard turkeys, where they are shackled upside down and lowered into electrified water, have their throats slit and are finally plunged into scalding-hot water to remove their feathers. Turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs alike struggle fiercely to escape the knife. All are equally filled with fear. If that's "humane," why not take the kids to the local slaughterhouse and make a day of it? Why not?

Because it's not humane.

And it's not sustainable. When we buy meat, we're supporting an industry that exploits workers, many of whom are undocumented and too scared to speak out about harsh working conditions. In his book, Genoways interviews meatpacking workers who lost fingers to saws or were disabled by crippling pain. And buying meat also supports an industry that poisons our waterways with nitrates and our bodies with saturated fat, hormones and bacteria.

"Humane meat" is like Santa Claus or unicorns -- it's a fantasy. Other animals have emotions and needs just as humans do, and there's nothing humane about raising and killing them for a product that we could easily do without. An estimated 736 million pounds of turkey are eaten on Thanksgiving Day alone, and about 25 percent of turkeys consumed at Thanksgiving are sold by Butterball. And every single one of those birds wanted to live just as much as we humans do.

This Thanksgiving -- and beyond -- to make truly humane choices at the grocery store, look for the label that says, "Vegan."