This Thanksgiving, Americans will eat 46 million turkeys. But before you go to the market to prepare for your holiday meal, take a moment to think about where the bird you plan on purchasing came from. While our country’s founders, and Native Americans long before them, ate wild turkeys, ( “social”, “swift” and “respectable” native forest dwelling birds that Benjamin Franklin famously argued would have made a better national symbol than the ferocious “lazy” bald eagle) today most of us will eat a plump, inexpensive, factory farmed, domesticated breed called the Broad Breasted White.These birds, which cost on average about $1.42 per pound, or around $22 bucks for a 16 pound turkey, were developed in early in the 20th century specifically to produce a maximum amount of meat at a minimum cost. That’s why shoppers seeking a humanely raised bird are often shocked to find the price hits about $100 to $120 for a pasture raised turkey. So why the big price difference between commercially produced and pasture raised turkeys?

Contracts and Corporate Control in Turkey Production

As Tom Philpott explains, the answer is that the low price of commercially produced turkeys reflects not only the height of industrial efficiency, but the power of corporations to exploit farmers. The turkey industry is incredibly consolidated, and just four companies – Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods – produce more than half of America’s turkeys. These companies set up short- term and exploitative contracts with small scale farmers who often borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars (usually by mortgaging their farm) to pay for land, workers and the industrial barns where the birds are raised. The turkeys themselves are owned by one of the big four corporations whose drivers deliver chicks to the farmers along with feed, antibiotics and management directions. They are picked up again mere months later when they are ready for slaughter.

By both owning the animals and the meat processing plants where they are slaughtered, the big poultry companies get to retain the majority of profits while outsourcing most of the costs and risks to the farmers, who are often left on the edge of bankruptcy. Farmers therefore have very little ability to pay their workers a living wage and are often forced to raise animals under hyper efficient dirty and inhumane conditions mandated by the corporations they’ve contracted with. These factory farms often contain as many as 15,000 birds in a single facility and raise three flocks a year, producing an enormous amount of toxic, polluting excrement in the process.  After they reach the desired weight, the birds are brought via truck long distances to the corporate owner slaughterhouse, where workers are often exploited and subject to unsafe conditions and turkeys are mistreated and even abused.