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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 13:10 GMT
'Think before you tuck into turkey'
By Greig Watson
BBC News, Nottingham

Young turkeys in a Freedom Food approved barn
"Freedom Food" birds are given more room to move and interact
Being a fundamental part of the festive season is all very well, but if your place is centre stage on the dining table, things may not seem quite so rosy.

About 20 million turkeys are produced for meat every year in the UK, the vast majority for Christmas dinner.

And while the nation's culinary affections are unlikely to shift en masse to nut roast, the RSPCA is asking consumers to think a little more about where their birds come from.

The animal welfare group is running a campaign to highlight the difference that choosing organic, free range or RSPCA-approved birds can make.

The average weight of a wild male turkey is around 7.5kg but with modern agricultural techniques such as selective breeding, a domesticated example can grow to 25kg.

Imagine how you would look after 10 weeks in a shed... you'd be pale and miserable
Mark Gorton, Turkey producer
In the charge to be ready for Christmas, farmed turkeys can gain weight at the rate of 1kg every week, a colossal increase which often puts painful strain on the animals' legs and hips.

Because of the massive bulk of the birds, natural mating among the domesticated turkey is difficult and even dangerous.

And the industrial scale of their production means that conditions faced by millions of birds can lead to serious health problems, according to opponents of intensive turkey farming.

They say that many are kept in gloomy sheds which can cause eye abnormalities.

Turkey's in a butcher's window
Opponents of intensive farming are critical of rearing methods
Overcrowding and a lack of stimulation can encourage abnormal behaviour like feather pecking, self harming and even cannibalism, say critics.

Nina Crump, marketing director of the RSPCA's Freedom Foods campaign, said: "We have a detailed set of welfare standards for all the main types of livestock in the UK, from sheep to salmon.

"If a producer wants to be involved, be they farmer, haulier or abattoir, we conduct an initial inspection of their operations then check them on a regular basis."

As more than 80% of turkey production is geared to the festive season, Freedom Foods starts organising well in advance.

"Turkeys in the Freedom Foods scheme have 50% more space than the industry norm," said Ms Crump.

"We insist on what is called 'environmental enrichment' - the provision of perches, straw bales, hanging objects for the birds to inspect and peck.

"When people sit down to their Christmas dinner, as well as enjoying time with their families, they can know they are doing something to improve the welfare of animals.

"The more people choose Freedom Foods, the more producers will want to be involved and the greater the benefit."

'Quality eating'

While organic turkey production is widespread, particularly in parts of the East Midlands and West Country, its traditional home is still Norfolk.

Mark Gorton is managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, a firm which produces more than 100,000 turkeys a year.

He said: "I think the difference between birds raised under these sort of welfare standards and those reared in an intensive way is obvious.

"If you imagine how you would look after 10 weeks in a shed, either with florescent lighting or in pitch dark, crowded in with lots of others, then you'd be pale and miserable, and so are the birds.

"Our birds have been out in the air, grown proper feathers, put on a layer of fat - it all adds to real quality in the eating."

Veggie couple save prize turkey
10 Dec 04 |  Somerset
Farming 'must embrace the new'
02 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature


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