Festive Food: Gobble? The secret life of turkeys, from the egg to the plate

Tony Blair will die tomorrow. It will happen quickly: a man will put a metal rod to his head and kill him with high-voltage electricity. Then his warm body will be suspended from a metal hook and all his feathers will be plucked out.

OK, you guessed, he isn't the Prime Minister. He's a turkey. (No gags, please: this Tony Blair is a six-month-old bird with black feathers and a cry that sounds like a cross between a gulp and a coo. And he's a girl.)

Tony is on death row today, waiting to be slaughtered and dispatched before becoming one of the 30 million turkeys the British will eat this Christmas, at a cost of £305m.

We do love to gobble the traditional bird - but the story of Tony's life and imminent death reveals details about the meat on all our plates, and how it gets there, that may turn your stomach.

For most turkeys, life is more squalid and death more drawn out than even the most devoted carnivores may care to contemplate on Christmas Day. And the tradition is far less traditional than you may think.

Tony is lucky to have been one of 800 reared in the back garden by turkey farmer Paul Kelly, to celebrate 21 years of his premium Kelly Bronze breed. He set up a webcam at his farm near Maldon in Essex and hung bibs on the birds as if they were celebrities in a jungle. For £30 you could have images of your adopted turkey sent to your mobile phone and retain the power of life and death over it.

Some owners decided to spare their birds, and five have gone off to a sanctuary. Only 20 remain, pecking the ground with their vulture-like beaks and presumably wondering where all the other turkeys who used to live on the farm have gone. Have they noticed all those palettes of white cardboard boxes being shipped out every day (each carrying a corpse and a sprig of rosemary)?

Probably not. Even if they did, they would still be the lucky ones. Tony and chums were hatched six months ago and have been allowed to fatten slowly on corn and ginseng. Their intensively reared cousins can go from egg to freezer bag in only 12 weeks - but a short lifespan may be a mercy when you consider the conditions.

All the birds grown by Kelly Turkeys are free range, but only 34,000 such turkeys will be on Christmas tables. As for the rest, the RSPCA encourages ordinary farmers, rearing tens of thousands of birds at a time, to sign up to the Freedom Foods label. This means guaranteeing one square metre of space for every 25 kilos of bird - but some farms cram 60 kilos (which could easily be six birds) into the same area, which roughly equates to a small coffee table.

Rest is difficult, as they continually bang into or climb over each other. Excrement piles up, causing ammonia burns to footpads and hocks. Some become so fat they can hardly stand. Bored, they peck at the feathers of their neighbours or even become cannibals. Farmers try to stop them by shortening their beaks with a red-hot blade. All of this happens under cover, in vast windowless sheds so dimly lit that birds become blind. A shed may hold up to 25,000 turkeys. But why does it matter if they're going to die anyway? Dr Mark Cooper of the RSPCA says: "These lovely creatures deserve some respect and care, particularly as they are such a large part of our Christmas."

Lovely? Well, yes, looking at the bronze sheen on Tony's black plumage, that is surprisingly true. Around 90 per cent of meat-eating families will have turkey over Christmas. It's traditional, isn't it? Not really, says the food historian Ivan Day. The earliest Christmas menu on record dates from 1660 - 134 years after the bird was first brought to this country from America - and it does feature turkey, but only alongside goose, swan and heron. It is goose that Tiny Tim gets to eat at the end of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the story that invented the modern festive celebration.

Turkey became ubiquitous only after the 1950s, says Mr Day. Geese were not suited to new intensive farming techniques, but turkeys were. Frozen food was fashionable, and turkey was the festive food that worked best in the freezer. So the new supermarkets pushed it aggressively, and turkey became "traditional". And tasteless, says Mr Day: "The modern lump of frozen concrete tastes like a genetic modification of balsa wood."

Increasing numbers of people agree with him. Turkey portions are seen as an all-round lean alternative to chicken or beef, but we are now buying as many fresh whole birds as frozen ones. While prices have dropped (not least because of the bird flu scare), farmers breeding the most expensive birds are experiencing a boom. People who can afford it are looking to recapture the spirit of the special seasonal feast: the bird reared since the summer, which tastes like nothing else.

So Tony must die. "We kill the birds," says Paul Kelly unapologetically. His daughters have grown up yards from where it happens. "To enjoy meat you need to know where it came from and what happened to it. There has been too much secrecy - supermarkets have driven the prices down, and suppliers have met the demand by doing things that people would not accept if they knew. People have lost touch with where their food comes from."

When the chef Gordon Ramsay killed a couple of his own turkeys on television last week several viewers complained, as though they had not realised death was involved in their dinner. So here is the unvarnished truth. Tony will not be stunned then slowly bled to death and scalded, as mass-farmed birds are; a single pulse of electricity will do it. But then one worker will pull her feet with a vice until her tendons come out, another will make a single cut to her neck, the next removes the head, and so on until the sullen men and women on the production line, working in very cold temperatures with the smell of death in their nostrils, have removed Tony's innards with a spoon and prepared her for packaging.

It's a grim sight, nearly enough to turn you vegetarian. Nearly. But you can't beat an old-fashioned slap-up roast with all the trimmings, can you?

Merry Christmas, Tony.

THE BIOGRAPHY OF A TURKEY ROAST

EGG

Turkey eggs are kept for 24 days in cabinets with regulated temperature, humidity and

carbon dioxide levels. They then spend four days in hatchers. The identical conditions can mean thousands of young birds emerging from their eggs within a few hours of each other

POULT

Free-range turkeys may live for six months before being killed, but some intensively reared birds only make it to 12 weeks. A wild male will grow to around 8 kilos, while farmed birds can reach 25 kilos. This can render them unable to walk or mate

FULLY GROWN ADULT

The Freedom Food label promoted by the RSPCA insists on one square metre of space for every 25 kilos of bird. Some intensive farms allow the same room for 60 kilos. This means some turkeys will live their whole lives in a space no bigger than a roasting tray

SLAUGHTERED

The heads of mass-farmed birds are placed in electrically charged water to stun them. Their throats are cut, but a few remain alive on entering scalding water to loosen feathers. Some farmers prefer to kill outright with a single blast of high-voltage electricity

HUNG

Kelly Turkeys plucks its birds by hand and hangs them for 14 days so that collagen breaks down, tenderising the meat. However, most birds are plucked mechanically by rubber fingers flaying their skin, before being sealed inside a plastic bag

PACKAGED

The British will eat around 30 million birds this Christmas, at a cost of £305m. Tesco is our biggest provider of fresh and frozen turkeys, with Sainsbury's and Asda trailing behind. In 1960 there were 63,000 butcher's shops in the UK. Now there are 9,000

EATEN

The average Christmas family lunch costs £12 per head, not including alcohol. A cheap frozen bird from the supermarket should cost around £1.40 per kilo, while a premium free-range, drug-free Kelly Bronze can cost £9 a kilo. Sales of fresh birds have now caught up with those of the frozen kind

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
News
With its new studios in Paris, Dailymotion has reinforced its position as Europe’s most-visited website
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit