There is no dispute over the fact that an overwhelming majority of the animals that die at the hands of humans are those that are killed for food. But, unfortunately, it is also true that they receive a smaller share of human compassion than that warranted by either their numbers or the intensity of their suffering. Few organizations have tried to expand this share as unceasingly and single-mindedly as Vegan Outreach, a small non-profit focused on reducing animal suffering. However, in making its argument and explaining why it exists, Vegan Outreach makes a startling claim about animals used for food:
... every year, hundreds of millions of animals—many times more than the number killed for fur, in shelters, and in laboratories combined—don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.”
Just to make sure nobody missed what is startling here, let me emphasize that Vegan Outreach is not comparing the number killed for food against the number killed for other mentioned reasons; it is comparing the number who suffer to death in the food industry even before they reach the moment of slaughter against the total number killed for all of those other reasons combined. Is Vegan Outreach right or is this claim just a well-meaning hyperbole? Well, let’s examine this claim step by step for the United States, starting with the animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories. In the following, the size of each circle is representative of the number of animals under discussion in the accompanying paragraph.
Animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories
For fur: The overwhelming majority of the animals we kill for fur in the United States are either wild animals that are trapped or ranch-raised mink from fur farms. In the most recent year for which data is available from the National Fur Harvest Database, we trapped and killed about 1,051,000 wild animals. According to a USDA report on mink pelts, the number of mink killed in fur farms in 2010 was about 2,822,000. That makes a total of about 3,873,000 animals killed for fur annually.
In shelters: There are thousands of independent community shelters in the U.S. which are not monitored by any national organization. Some states, such as California, require shelters to report euthanasia statistics but most states do not. Estimates of the number of companion animals killed in shelters in the U.S. are usually based on extrapolation from the data for states such as California or some other sample of shelters for which data is available. The HSUS estimates that the number of companion animals killed in shelters in the US today is around 4 million.
In laboratories: The most recent USDA publication (pdf) on animal use in research reports that 1,134,693 animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act were used in research in 2010. There is no publicly available data on animals not covered by the Animal Welfare Act. However, the Department of Defense (DoD), which reports on all animals it uses in research, offers us a clue. Its most recent report (pdf) on animal care and use suggests that 90.26% of the animals used in research in fiscal year 2007 were those not covered by the Animal Welfare Act (rats, mice, birds and most non-mammals). If we assume that DoD labs are representative of other labs that use animals, we are led to an estimate of the number of animals used in research each year at approximately 11,650,000.
Animals who suffer to death
Caged layer hens: In both intensity and duration, the suffering experienced by layer hens in conventional battery cages has no parallel. Extreme confinement with prolonged suppression of natural instincts leads to frustration, anxiety and aggression. Constant pecking by other hens and abrasion with wire-mesh cages causes an eventual loss of feathers with bald patches of exposed skin. Continued pecking on the featherless skin leads to what the industry calls tissue pecking, which may lead to death. I am not sure there is a worse way to die, but according to Norwood and Lusk, professors of agricultural economics and authors of Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare, one-third of layer hen mortality can be attributed to this. But again, every hen who dies in her cage is one who suffers to death, whether she dies of tissue pecking, cage layer fatigue (an extreme form of osteoporosis), egg peritonitis, or starvation as a result of having gotten herself stuck in the cage wires with no way to reach food and water. Norwood and Lusk estimate that the mortality rate in caged hens is about 3%. According to the 2011 report from the USDA on poultry, 279 million hens are used annually in the US for eggs. A conservative estimate is that over 90% of them are housed in conventional cages. With that, we can estimate that about 7,533,000 hens actually suffer to death annually.
Chickens dead on arrival: Yes, the industry uses the term ‘dead on arrival’ for animals that die between the time they are put into crates/trucks for transportation to the slaughterhouse and the scheduled moment of slaughter. Chickens arrive dead for a number of reasons including dislocated or broken hips from rough handling, congestive heart failure from the stress of catching and transport, exposure to cold or excessive heat, or just from starvation because of feed withdrawn from them in their last days to reduce fecal contamination. These are all animals that suffer to death even before they reach slaughter. Agri Stats, Inc., a statistical research and analysis firm serving agribusiness companies, is quoted in a 2005 article in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research as having estimated the percentage of broiler chickens who are dead on arrival at 0.35% in the United States. According to the 2011 report from the USDA on poultry, 8,625,200,000 chickens were sent to slaughter in 2010 and so, it can be estimated that about 30,188,000 broiler chickens die during transportation for slaughter. The pre-slaughter mortality rate is even higher for spent hens who, having been confined in a cage for most of their lives, have more fragile bones. Data from another study conducted in Italy (its dead-on-arrival numbers for broiler chickens match the US numbers and therefore, it is a fair assumption to extrapolate to the case of spent hens in the US) suggests that the dead-on-arrival rate for spent hens is as high as 1.22%. According to the same USDA report referenced above, 171,787,000 hens were sold for slaughter in 2010 and so, about 2,096,000 layer hens suffered to death on their way to slaughter. Now, that's a total of 32,284,000 chickens who suffer to death annually during transport before they even reach the moment of slaughter!
Broiler chickens with leg deformities: An all-consuming focus on weight gain and feed conversion efficiencies have led to increasing percentages of chickens in the broiler industry with legs that cannot adequately support their weight. Severely lame birds cannot walk or even stand. They can starve to death if they are unable to reach food and water. They die a painful death from a variety of consequences of leg deformities including limb torsion, ruptured tendons, swollen foot pads and severe lesions, ulcers or hemorrhages. In the scientific literature on poultry health (such as in this article in Poultry Science published by the Poultry Science Association), among the most frequently quoted studies on leg deformities in broiler chickens is a national survey which found that broiler flocks experience 1.1% mortality due to leg abnormalities. Another 2.1% are condemned or downgraded as a result of leg problems, which we will not even count as having suffered to death since they may be “culled” before they die of their suffering. According to the USDA 2011 report on poultry production and value, 8,625,200,000 chickens survived to get sent to slaughter in 2010 and enter the market as meat for human consumption. So, that makes about 98,014,000 chickens who suffer to death in the broiler industry as a result of leg deformities!
So, is Vegan Outreach right?
Now, let's total these numbersbelow to see where we stand.
19,523,000 = Estimated number of animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories combined.
137,831,000 = Estimated number of chickens who suffer to death without even making it to slaughter.
These are the numbers (with conservative estimates culled from industry reports and scientific journals) and we have not even covered all the other ways by which millions of chickens can slowly suffer to death (such as from respiratory diseases caused by exposure to elevated levels of noxious ammonia). And yes, we did not even start counting the turkeys, pigs, cows and, yes, the billions of fish! But, we don't have to. The answer to the question posed in the title of this post is already evident.
Vegan Outreach, sadly for the suffering animals, is spectacularly right!