The catching and transport of birds prior to slaughter can cause considerable pain and distress. Turkeys are considerably larger and stronger than chickens and can be nervous and easily frightened. Catchers are often less familiar with handling turkeys and many birds may be injured whilst being removed from sheds/barns and thrust into crates. Poor handling frequently results in bruising, skin grazing and broken blood vessels. Transport to slaughter can be a considerable distance and the birds may be exposed to extremes of weather. Cold, heat, stress, suffocation and shock all take their toll.
Turkeys are normally slaughtered at between 9 and 21 weeks old, depending on the size of bird being produced (the natural lifespan of a turkey is around 10 years). Over 15 million turkeys (15.89 million) were slaughtered in the UK in 2009 (15.45 million in 2008) (1). The majority of birds are killed in large, semi-automated slaughterhouses.
Turkeys are removed from their crates and hung upside down by their legs from shackles on a moving line. Turkeys may legally hang shackled for up to 3 minutes before being stunned and this time is probably frequently exceeded (2). At slaughter, turkeys can weigh anything from 5 - 28kg, light turkeys are those classed under 8kg and heavy turkeys over 8kgs. The pain caused to heavy birds whilst they hang in shackles must be considerable. This pain will be worsened by the fact that many of the birds and especially the larger ones will suffer from diseased hip joints. The shackles carries them to an electrically charged stunning water bath through which the bird’s head is dragged in order to render the bird unconscious, and thus insensible to pain before their necks are cut. For a bird to be stunned, rather than receiving an electric shock, the electric current must pass through its brain before contacting any other part of the body. As turkeys have a large wingspan, their wings hang lower than their heads and so are in danger of entering the stunning bath before their heads (2,5). Scientific Research has identified two vital factors to reduce the danger of birds regaining consciousness as they bleed to death. Sufficient current should be used to induce a cardiac arrest and both carotid arteries in the neck (the main blood supply to the brain) must be severed to ensure that the turkeys die as quickly as possible from loss of blood, reducing the likelihood of birds regaining consciousness.
A number of slaughterhouses fail to regularly ensure both these factors are carried out (5). After the bird’s necks have been cut they are placed into a scalding tank, which is designed to loosen their feathers before plucking. Due to an additional demand for turkeys at Christmas, ‘Seasonal Slaughterhouses’ are used to cope with the extra demand, 10 millions turkeys are killed in this period (7). Many turkeys will be killed by having their necks dislocated, research has shown that this does not usually have an immediate effect and therefore unconsciousness may not be instantaneous (2). There is no law that a licensed slaughter man must carry the procedure of neck dislocation.
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