More than 20 million farm animals die each year on the way to the slaughterhouse in the United States | Animal wellbeing

Tens of millions of farm animals in the United States die before they can be slaughtered, according to a Guardian investigation revealing the deadly conditions in which animals are transported across the country.

About 20 million chickens, 330,000 pigs and 166,000 cattle die on or shortly after arrival at slaughterhouses in the United States each year, according to analysis of publicly available data. It is calculated that an additional 800,000 pigs are unable to walk upon arrival.

Official records of animal deaths are not published, but vets and welfare specialists told the Guardian the main causes were likely to be heat stress, particularly in the summer months, freezing temperatures and the traumas.

The number of deaths was likely increased by the long distances some animals are forced to travel and the increasing frequency of transport.

A truck carrying pigs was tracked as it traveled for 32 hours non-stop across the United States in August last year, with the animals kept inside the entire trip.

A truck drops off pigs for slaughter in California. Consolidation in the meat industry means that animals have to travel longer distances to get to slaughter. Photography: David McNew/Getty Images

Even longer journeys have been reported for animals transported across the border to or from Mexico and Canada. A trucker told an animal welfare investigator he drove cattle from the Canadian city of Quebec to Mexico, a trip that took nearly two days.

Another trucker said he brought cattle from a small stockyard east of New York to Chihuahua in Mexico, which took 48 hours. The cattle had no water, food or rest during the journey.

A single piece of legislation governs the transportation of animals in the United States: the 28 Hours Act, which was first enacted in 1873. The law states that animals must be unloaded, rested for five hours, and fed and watered if the trip lasts more than 28 hours. It does not cover birds.

Piper Hoffman, legal director of the NGO Animal Outlook, said the law was originally designed to cover animals transported by rail. “It wasn’t until 2006, in response to pressure from NGOs, that the US government recognized that the law also protected animals transported by truck,” she said.

Despite investigations into animal transport by Animal Outlook in 2005, 2012 and 2021 – all of which documented what the NGO alleged were violations of the law – no prosecutions have taken place to date.

In Europe, the transport of animals by road is theoretically limited to eight or nine hours, but exceptions and implementation failures mean that some journeys are much longer.

The Guardian transport mortality figures for chickens were calculated by converting data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) showing the weight of condemned poultry meat before slaughter.

Pig counts are based on 2021 USDA slaughter figures and analysis which found, over the years 2012 to 2015, an average of 0.26% of pigs died after transport, while 0.63% were unable to walk. The cattle figure is also based on USDA slaughter figures and an analysis that found an average of 0.49% of cattle were condemned after transport between 2003 and 2007.

Pigs loaded into a truck for transport
A truck carrying pigs was tracked for 32 hours nonstop in the United States in August last year, without the animals being unloaded. Photography: Hugo Borges/AFP/Getty Images

A USDA statistician who reviewed the Guardian analysis had no corrections to make to the final figures.

Gwendolen Reyes-Illg, a veterinarian who works with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a US non-profit organization, said research indicates the leading causes of death in cattle were “heatstroke, trauma and respiratory diseases… [and in] pigs, the main reason is hyperthermia (overheating), especially in summer”.

Additional risks included injuries from slips in urine and manure, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, Hoffman said.

Dena Jones, director of AWI, said the consolidation of the meat industry with larger and fewer companies was increasing the distances animals had to travel to get to the slaughterhouse. An increasing separation between the different stages of production also meant that animals were moved, for example, from rearing areas to fattening areas and then to slaughter.

Jones said violations of the 28-hour law were likely to be common, “affecting perhaps 10% or more of farm animals transported interstate.”

Responding to accusations that it failed to properly enforce animal welfare regulations, a USDA spokesperson said in an email: “The [US] the Attorney General is authorized to seek civil penalties against any carrier who knowingly and willfully violates the 28-hour law. Therefore, any further inquiries about the applicability of the 28-hour rule should be directed to the Department of Justice. The US Department of Justice did not respond to questions.

The USDA did not respond to requests for comment on the number of transport-related animal deaths, nor did agriculture representative groups the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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