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Happy turkeys taste better at Christmas

Friday 03 December 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on an annual spat between farmers and animal welfare campaigners and suggests we consumers take the middle road and buy a happy turkey

AS THE Americans say, turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Fortunately, for we non-vegetarians, the birds doesn't know what lies in store at this time of the year and therefore, we should hope, do not get too uptight about it.

And that can make a great difference to the meat on our plate come December 25, according to many experts I have met this past few weeks whilst doing research about new farming methods.

It is widely believed by people like vets, RSPCA officials, traditional farmers and others with a genuine - as opposed to a political - interest in animal welfare that farm animals and birds which have led a happy, contented life produce tastier, more tender meat.

Tasting better, a happy turkey.
Tasting better, a happy turkey.

I do not know if this has ever been proved scientifically, but think of it in human terms. We all know pressurised people who have been forced to work under huge stress packed into offices or factories. I doubt these people would get the saliva running when they came out of the cannibal's pot.

The reason for these musings is that, this week, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) launched a blistering attack on a campaign wheeled out by the National Farmers' Union to persuade people to buy their turkey straight from a local farmer.

Now, I think this is a great idea but, at the same time, I have a considerable sympathy for CIWF. This is not a bunch of animal rights terrorists but a serious-minded, London-based international organisation with an honourable record in improving the lives of farm animals across Europe and further afield.

In its attack on the NFU marketing campaign, it accuses the union of trying to persuade the public that most turkeys have lived free-range lives in bucolic stretches of the English countryside - when, in fact, most of the 23 million birds to be slaughtered in the next few weeks will have been reared in factory farms under conditions more akin to Nazi concentration camp.

The sad things here is that both organisations have a good point. In trying to boost the sale of turkeys from mixed - as opposed to one-product battery - farms, the NFU is trying to give its long-suffering members a bit of a financial boost this Christmas.

Whereas the CIWF is undoubtedly right. Battery poultry farming is a disgrace to so-called compassionate nation. It makes a sick joke of a government which just banned a centuries old hunting tradition to "protect" some 10,000 foxes (which will be shot or poisoned anyway) when hundreds of millions of birds spend their entire lives in the equivalent of a torture chamber.

There is, however, one concrete outcome to this largely moral debate. We, the general public, can actually influence the outcome via, not our bumbling politicians, but our most potent weapon of all - the pocket book.

It's not difficult for the vast majority of the factory farms turkeys are sold in the supermarkets. Many of the frozen ones are not even British, but produced in sometimes even more appalling conditions abroad. French birds reared in this way also have along history of being infected with salmonella.

So buy your bird from a local butcher, preferably one who you know deals in local produce. Better still, get out there and buy one at the farm gate. Yes, it will cost you a few bob more. But it will be more tasty, more tender, and it will have lived a happier life.

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