“Wasting” Animals’ Lives Is the Cost of Doing Business for Big Meat

As major meat companies continue to expose their already vulnerable workforces to COVID-19—nearly one in ten slaughterhouse employees has been diagnosed with the illness—plant slowdowns continue to affect animals trapped at factory farms.

Some officials estimate that up to 700,000 pigs are killed at farms each week in the United States. Millions of chickens have also been destroyed. Animals are shot, gassed, “thumped” (slammed headfirst into the ground), or suffocated and then thrown away. In some cases this means being ground up in giant wood chippers.

The media largely tells this story through a cold economic lens, portraying mass “depopulation” as little more than a severe loss of profits or a waste of food. But this large-scale killing actually highlights the cruelty of an industry that, when put under pressure, quickly discards its “inputs”—workers and animals alike—as if they were sacks of rotting potatoes.

Painting mass on-farm killings as an unprecedented food waste issue doesn’t just hide how unethical factory farming is; it also conceals a fact that the meat, dairy, and egg industries would rather keep secret: The enormous “waste” of animal lives is a constant cost of doing business—one not at all unique to the pandemic.

The animal agriculture industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not, unsurprisingly, make the numbers of animals killed and discarded easily accessible. But we do know that at least 500,000 chickens die each year during the slaughter process but never reach consumers. The industry calls these “cadaver birds”: animals killed and thrown away as a result of ineffective slaughter practices after brief, miserable lives at factory farms.

Each year, many more chickens, pigs, cows, and farm-raised fish die, never arriving at slaughter plants. Male chicks in the egg industry, useless to corporations that profit by exploiting female animals, are thrown into trash bags or ground up alive immediately after hatching. And due to grueling transport practices that subject animals to extreme heat and cold, often without water or food and across long distances, many animals are “dead on arrival” at the slaughterhouse.

Most pre-slaughter death in the animal agriculture industry happens at farms. According to the National Chicken Council, the U.S. chicken industry has an average 5 percent mortality rate, which means about 450,000 chickens die at farms annually. Crammed wall to wall in filthy warehouses, bred to grow too large too fast, and denied fresh air and sunlight, chickens are destined to perish in huge numbers at factory farms.

The large number of animals who die at farms also takes a toll on farmers, some of whom have admitted to Mercy For Animals that killing sick birds and picking up the dead occupy most of their workdays, harming the farmers’ physical and mental health. The problem is so dire that poultry supply companies have even invented mechanized systems for the daily chore of removing dead animals.

What does it say about our food system that innovation looks like creating ways to more efficiently throw away animals who have suffered to death? The pandemic’s toll and the day-to-day waste of life inherent in industrial animal agriculture both raise the question: Isn’t there a better way to feed ourselves?

There is, and we can build it together. We all deserve a food system that treats people, animals, and the planet with respect, one that is resilient in the face of challenges and enhances rather than threatens our health. A plant-based economy will benefit everyone: workers, farmers, consumers, and animals. Join us in our work to create it by signing up for our newsletter today.