There is a growing trend in meatless diets, and while this is a personal decision that each person must make, it seems that misinformation swirls around animal agriculture and spreads like wildfire. The reasons for activists to condemn eating turkey and ham during the holidays, a time when consumption of these products is at their highest in America, may stem from incorrect views of an intricate industry. As a rancher, advocate, and meat-eater myself, I want to dispel some common beliefs of the turkey and swine industries.
Turkeys are raised in poultry houses, which are state-of-the-art barns complete with biosecurity and weather, disease, and predator protection. Although some believe that there are toxic fumes inside and emitting from the houses, the environment- controlled barns are equipped with modern tunnel ventilation fans and shouldn’t produce any “fumes.” These tunnels at the end of the house bring fresh air into the barns. Litter application (bedding to keep the houses dry and clean) may produce odors lasting a few hours to a few days but are not toxic by any means.
Turkeys have ample room to run around, as industry regulations require specific spacing in order to allow the birds to move freely. Birds tend to flock together, as many animals do, and since houses are so large, you may not see all the extra space towards the back of the barn in photos or in person.
Turkey hens and toms, adult females and males respectively, are between 14-18 weeks of age when harvested. To an unknowing mind, this might seem young, but the truth is that animals age faster than humans, and food animals have been improved through years of breeding and eating high-quality feed in order to produce more efficient animals. This helps with environmental factors, as well as food security. Harvesting these animals is done humanely and is regulated by governmental standards and officials to ensure the proper handling and management of the animals from hatching to processing. Feathers, offal’s, and other items are removed by boiling water once the animals have been carefully slaughtered. Animals do not feel pain during this process, per industry regulations, standards, and research.
With hogs, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes most people do not know about without having first-hand knowledge, so it is understandable that people assume such bad conditions. Coming from a family who produced swine for many years, I can attest to the facts I have listed out below.
Gilts and Sows, or female pigs, are put into what is called “gestation stalls,” which keep the animals from getting injured by other animals and allows them to have access to the food they need during their 4-month pregnancy. Hogs can be violent towards each other and cause less dominant animals to suffer. These stalls allow the animals to get up and lay down as they please, without the risk of any harm. Research has been done which shows that animals in these stalls display lower stress levels than when in a pen of animals. Some animals are placed into group housing, which can consist of five-100 animals, but these are larger pens with space for animals to move around. Each type of housing has advantages and disadvantages, but farmers constantly work to improve the well-being of each animal. Animals who are sickly, depressed, or mistreated do not produce well and so all meat industries work hard to ensure happy, healthy animals.
There are far too many management practices to use blanket statements about weaning piglets, because some farmers must remove them immediately for their health and safety reasons, while others may wean later because they do not need to wean right away. Food animals have a completely different life cycle than others, including weaning length, but it does not mean it is inherently bad. Castrating, removing eye teeth, notching ears, and other basic medical needs are attended to once piglets are born, these prevent injury and are mildly discomforting to the animals. It is important to remember that animals are not like us in terms of child rearing, growth, and pain, they do not feel the same as humans do in those situations. When taking care of medical needs such as those aforementioned, it is done quickly, and as peacefully as possible. Animal veterinarians have approved of all practices so long as they are done correctly.
As for any concerns about saturated fats, cholesterol, hormones, pathogens, and antibiotics, there is a lot more to the story than some activists will tell.
Firstly, antibiotics are used only in animals who are sick or injured to prevent any further pain and suffering. Veterinarians and industry regulations prohibit the abuse of these medicines, and there is not much crossover between human and animal antibiotics- regardless, the livestock industry understands the importance of antibiotic resistance and practices safe management to prevent any risk. All animals given antibiotics must go through a withdrawal period before ever being placed into the food production system.
Hormones are not something to be afraid of because everything has naturally occurring hormones. For example, a normal adult male produces 136,000 nanograms(ng) of estrogen per day and a non-pregnant woman produces on average 513,000 ng daily. The Food and Drug Administration strictly prohibits poultry and pork industries from using added hormones, however, naturally occurring hormones exist in anything you may eat. Yes, that includes plant-based foods. Tofu has 19,306,004 ng of estrogenic activity, just for a comparison.
Saturated fats can increase your cholesterol levels, so selecting lean meats, which most cuts of pork, poultry and beef are lean, will ensure you are consuming nutrient-packed protein without all the worry of saturated fats. Meat also is high in monounsaturated fats, which are healthy, so do not think that meat is all unhealthy fats!
Pathogens are a scary thing to consider in food. However, if someone tries to use this as a reason to eat plant-based, just know that there are outbreaks in plants as well- lettuce crops have been plagued with E. coli in the past. This is where you come in. Be sure to pay attention to recalls and know what food safety standards are for what are you are eating. If you do not practice good food safety practices at home, you can spread pathogens very easily yourself. When preparing whole cuts of meat, all bacteria that exists sits on the outer surface of the meat, so if you cook it whole, you will kill off any pathogens that may exist. When cooking ground meats, it is important to cook thoroughly and to the correct temperature to ensure all bacteria is killed.
A tip I tell people when reading anything regarding animal agriculture is to be able to recognize sensationalized language and emotionally- charged wording. This will allow you to distinguish between information and opinion. To learn more about the turkey and pork industries, check out the National Pork Producers Association, Pork Checkoff, and the National Turkey Federation websites.