Animals raised for food face a number of welfare issues. Most of these issues are the result of attempts to reduce expenses while increasing profit. Toward this end, animals are placed in uncomfortable and dangerous situations, mutilated, and bred in a manner that results in serious health issues. No animal raised for food, whether as large as a dairy cow or as small as a laying hen, is exempt from the numerous welfare issues caused by standard industry practices.
Farmed animal welfare issues
Every year billions of chickens are raised and slaughtered for food in the United States. In just September 2022, over 800 million chickens were slaughtered. The sheer number of chickens being cycled through U.S. farms leads to suffering on a massive scale. Chickens across both the egg and meat industries are impacted by welfare standards that even the most lack basic protections against suffering.
Within the egg industry, male chicks are considered useless because they cannot lay. The male birds are also viewed as useless for meat, since they do not grow as large or as quickly as so-called “broiler” chickens bred specifically for meat production. For these reasons they are killed at just a few hours old. Often this process involves a grinder into which they are thrown without any sedation or pain management.
Beak trimming, also called debeaking, means the removal of a quarter to a third of a chicken’s beak. The procedure can be done using a hot blade, or via other mechanical, electrical, or infra-red methods. It is most often performed as a means of reducing pecking and cannibalism, which is common in environments where birds have no outlets for common behaviors like pecking. The practice causes pain and behavioral changes that will impact the bird for the rest of their lives.
Imagine living your entire life as a hen with less space than a piece of printer paper to stand on and explore. That’s the sad reality for chickens housed in battery cages, whose natural behaviors are almost entirely curtailed. Though many institutions are making the shift toward less confining housing systems, hundreds of millions of chickens are still subject to the self-evident cruelty of battery cages.
If you’ve seen an image or video taken from inside a chicken farm, you’ve likely been struck by how many chickens are packed together within such a small space. This is the sad reality of most chicken farms, and a requirement for factory farms, which in order to be considered a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) must contain at least 30,000 birds, with many having several hundred thousand. The overcrowding that these chickens endure places them at heightened risk of developing diseases.1
The breeds of chicken commonly raised for their meat have been genetically modified to grow by 50 grams a day or more. Their monstrous growth rate leads to severe health issues, including hock burns, leg abnormalities, and higher mortality rates.2
Feed restriction of breeds
The birds who parent the broiler chickens who are killed for meat suffer from the same genetic problems as their young. This means that if they were fed enough to satiate their hunger, they would grow to such a size that they would be unable to survive long enough to safely breed and lay fertilized eggs. The solution to this, per industry professionals, is to restrict their feed so that they are in a constant state of hunger.
Genetics and breeder birds
The chickens widely used to produce food have been bred over hundreds of generations to maximize profit with little regard for their welfare. This results in laying hens who produce so many eggs that their bones break, and chickens raised for meat who grow so quickly that they suffer serious medical conditions as a result.
Transport and slaughter
During transport birds are exposed to extreme temperatures and long distances, often without any breaks to rest or recoup energy. These conditions result in stress, weight loss, and for many of them, death. Those that do make it all the way to their destination face the slaughterhouse, where swift production lines often result in broken legs and being boiled awake and alive.
In 2021, 129 million pigs were slaughtered at federally inspected facilities in the United States. Of these, just 14 slaughterhouses were responsible for killing 58 percent of them, with the remaining 42 percent slaughtered by the other 630 facilities.
Sow stalls and gestation crates
Sow stalls and gestation crates are two names for the same housing system. During their pregnancy, female pigs are housed in gestation crates so small that they cannot even turn around. The housing system leads to confinement injuries such as pressure sores, ulcers, and abrasions as well as an increase in problem behaviors including biting, chewing, and licking. The psychological toll that gestation crates take is almost unimaginable.
Overcrowding for pigs can lead to welfare issues such as tail biting. To prevent this behavior, some farmers dock the tails of piglets, but pigs will often simply bite the stump of the tail or ears instead.
Once a mother pig is ready to give birth she is moved to a farrowing crate. Like gestation crates, farrowing crates prevent the mother pig from turning around and only allow her to move slightly forward and backward. The primary reason the crates are used is to prevent the mother pig from crushing her babies.
Segregated early weaning is a common practice within commercial facilities raising pigs, as it reduces disease transmission from older pigs to the piglets and increases the mother pigs’ reproductive efficiency. However, the practice leads to increased immunological, environmental, and nutritional stress due to piglets being separated from the mothers too soon.3
Transport and slaughter
The process of transporting and slaughtering pigs is highly traumatic for the pigs. On the trucks, pigs run the risk of heat stroke, heart failure, and exhaustion. The experience prior to slaughter can be so stressful that it results in physical changes to the flesh of the pig. During slaughter, the stunning apparatus may fail due to operator error, meaning that the pig is conscious and aware of being slaughtered.
In 2021, 33.9 million cattle were slaughtered in the United States. This represents a 3 percent increase in the number of cattle slaughtered from 2020. Before their slaughter, they endure a large amount of suffering in the form of health issues and body mutilation.
Disbudding means the destruction or removal of the cells that will produce horns before they adhere to the skull. The procedure is usually performed before a calf is 8 weeks old, by farm staff, not veterinarians, and can be done using a hot iron or caustic paste. Because the procedure is painful, pain management is suggested by veterinary professionals, but it is not required.
The housing system that cattle live in has significant impacts on their welfare.4 Many cattle live in facilities with such a small amount of space per animal that they express far fewer natural behaviors than cattle who have a little more room or those who are raised on pasture. Factors such as the enrichment offered, flooring type, and shade provided all have welfare implications for cattle.
Lameness, mastitis, and infertility
Mastitis and lameness can both impact the fertility of a cow. Mastitis—a painful condition involving inflammation of the mammary tissue—reduces fertility due to the secretion of certain lipids which regulate the cow’s menstrual cycle. Lameness leads to reduced fertility by negatively impacting the condition of the cow who is likely to lose weight and stop eating as much.
Diet and hormones
Giving hormones to cattle as an additive in their diet or implanted directly into the animal has long been standard practice on animal farms. Hormones are offered for a variety of reasons including to promote growth or milk production. The use of some of these hormones can lead to the development of some diseases such as mastitis in cattle.5
The welfare implications of slaughter in any capacity are as severe as one might imagine. For cattle, in addition to the slaughter itself, they are exposed to noise, unfamiliar humans and animals, transport, high temperatures, water and food deprivation, and a number of other factors that all contribute to high stress.6
Male calves birthed by dairy cows make up most of the veal industry. The dairy industry makes the veal industry possible. The calves raised as “bob” veal—to 16 to 20 weeks of age—are given a milk replacer diet intentionally deficient in iron to make their meat paler and more desirable. This leads to anemia and other health issues.
In just September 2022, over 17 million turkeys were slaughtered in the United States.
Feather pecking and cannibalism are serious potential outcomes of overcrowding in turkeys. These behaviors, once learned by one turkey, are likely to spread across the barn due to the birds’ tendency to imitate.
Because large breasts and legs lead to larger profits, turkeys have been bred for these traits, leading to modern animals who are incapable of breeding on their own and must be artificially inseminated instead.
This year thousands of turkeys in the U.S. were slaughtered due to the spread of avian flu in factory farms. These birds cannot be sold to the public and instead are simply treated as waste. Factory farms provide the ideal environment for the spread of such diseases due to the genetic similarity and sheer numbers of birds.
Catching and transport
Turkeys are herded into crates, then often face long journeys and harsh temperatures when they are being moved to slaughterhouses.
In the United States and EU, more than 200 million Pekin ducks are slaughtered every year. These ducks face many of the same environmental conditions and genetic maladies that cause suffering in the chicken and turkey industry, but many are also force-fed in order to fatten their livers which will then be sold as foie gras. Like other animals farmed en masse, they endure a variety of welfare issues including housing, slaughter, and illness.7
Billions of fish and other aquatic animals are killed every year to support the food production industry. Despite recent research demonstrating that they are capable of experiencing pain, they are often left to suffocate slowly out of the water or be crushed by the bodies of other fish inside nets.
How does animal welfare affect farmers?
In many situations, corporations’ profits increase when they disregard animal welfare. For example, confining pigs to crates, crowding chickens into battery cages, and genetically modifying animals to eat less but grow faster all reduce costs and increase profits at the expense of animal welfare. Unfortunately, industrial animal agriculture is economically structured to prioritize profits no matter the cost to animal welfare. Corporations are only incentivized to improve animal welfare in cases where increased animal welfare correlates with greater profits. For example, gentler handling while being unloaded at the slaughterhouse can lead to less damage to the flesh of the animal being slaughtered.
In addition to some economic benefits, improving welfare would also reduce the risk of disease spread and illness. Modern factory farms provide the ideal environment for the spread of disease not only among the animals, but also from the animals to the people employed. Some changes that happen to be good for animal welfare, such as reducing stocking density, opting for animals with more diverse and stronger genetics, and ensuring housing conditions are clean and diet is healthy, would also help prevent the spread of zoonotic disease from animals to people. However, because these changes do not correlate with increased profits by food animal companies, they are unlikely to be pursued in the absence of legislation.
How you can help farmed animals
One of the most impactful steps we can take as individuals to help farmed animals is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, them from our diets. Eating animals or the food products that they are raised to produce, such as eggs and cheese, contributes to the suffering of farmed animals. Reaching for plant-based alternatives shifts the economic incentive that your money gives suppliers toward animal-free products.