Posted on October 24, 2011, 7:19 PM
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.”
- M. Ball. A Meaningful Life (brochure). Vegan Outreach, December 2008. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. National Furbearer Harvest Database. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Mink (Annual Report). July 2012. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
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 in shelters, for fur, 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 in shelters, for fur, and in laboratories
- HSUS. Common Questions about Animal Shelters. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Annual Report: Animal Usage by Fiscal Year (2010). July 2011. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- Department of Defense. Animal Care and Use Programs for Fiscal Years 2006 and 2007. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- F. B. Norwood and J. L. Lusk. Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Oxford University Press, 2011.
- R. Singh et al. Production Performance and Egg Quality of Four Strains of Laying Hens Kept in Conventional Cages and Floor Pens. Poultry Science 88(2), February 2009. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Chickens and Eggs. December 2013. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
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 each year.
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 (2011) from the National Furbearer Harvest Database, we trapped and killed about 6,764,370 wild animals. According to a USDA report on mink pelts, the number of mink killed in fur farms in 2011 was about 3,091,470. That makes a total of about 9,855,840 animals killed for fur annually.
In laboratories: The most recent USDA publication 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 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 11,646,000.
Animals who suffer to death
- United Egg Producers. General US Stats. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- C. W. Ritz, A. B. Webster and M. Czarick III. Evaluation of Hot Weather Thermal Environment and Incidence of Mortality Associated with Broiler Live Haul. Journal of Applied Poultry Research 14(3), 2005. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Poultry Slaughter. January 2013. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- M. Petracci et al. Preslaughter Mortality in Broiler Chickens, Turkeys, and Spent Hens Under Commercial Slaughtering. Poultry Science 85(9), September 2006. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- C. P. Laster et al. Effects of Dietary Roxarsone Supplementation, Lighting Program, and Season on the Incidence of Leg Abnormalities in Broiler Chickens. Poultry Science 78(2), February 1999. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Poultry Production and Value. April 2013. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
- National Chicken Council. U.S. Broiler Performance, 2011. (link, accessed December 27, 2013)
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.
According to the most recent USDA report on chickens and eggs, the number of egg laying hens totalled 351 million in the US (which include about 296 million hens whose eggs we eat and about 52 million hens whose eggs are used to hatch new chickens we eat). In counting the hens whose eggs we eat, I will only consider those hens who die during the laying period in a conventional cage as having suffered to death (and not during the rearing period before they begin to lay eggs), a distinction that is only rarely made in both academic and industry estimates of the mortality rate. According to a recent study, published in Poultry Science in 2009, the mortality rate during the laying period of hens in conventional cages ranges from 7.78% to 15.8% depending on the strain. To be conservative, I will use the lowest number, 7.78%, in this post. Since a hen lays eggs for about 2 years, about 296/2 = 148 million hens begin laying eggs during each year. According to the United Egg Producers, as of March 2012, production from caged systems is about 94.3% of the total. With that, we can estimate that about 10,858,000 hens whose eggs we eat 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 USDA report on poultry slaughter, 8,428,814,000 chickens were turned into meat in 2012 and so, it can be estimated that about 29,604,000 broiler chickens died 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 another USDA report on poultry production and value, 178,313,000 hens were sold for slaughter in 2012 and so, about 2,175,000 layer hens suffered to death on their way to slaughter. Now, that's a total of about 31,780,000 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. According to the National Chicken Council, mortality rate of broilers these days is 3.8%, but I will consider only the 1.1% who die of leg problems as having suffered to death. Since 8,428,814,000 chickens in 2012 survived the 3.8% mortality rate to get processed into meat for human consumption, we can estimate that the 1.1% who suffered to death number about 96,379,000.
So, is Vegan Outreach right?
Now, let's total these numbers and visualize their magnitudes in the circle representations below to see where we stand.
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!
Note: This post was last updated on December 29, 2013.