Festive Food: Gobble? The secret life of turkeys, from the egg to the plate
Sunday 18 December 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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