18 Billion Animals Raised for Meat Wound Up As Food Waste. Here’s Why.

18 Billion Animals Raised for Meat Wound Up As Food Waste. Here’s Why.

  • Heather Decker

About one-quarter of all land animals raised for food in 2019 were never eaten. Instead, they became “food waste,” winding up in mass graves, grocery store dumpsters, and consumer trash cans. Regardless of anyone’s personal philosophy or food choices, killing an animal for no purpose is not only tragic but wasteful.

One in four, or 18 billion in 75 billion, land animals killed for food each year are tallied as mere “food loss and waste.” This number includes animals who die prematurely at farms or during transport to slaughter and those wasted during processing or discarded by retailers and consumers. 

The “factory farmification” of our food system, which prioritizes profit over animal welfare and sustainability, is largely to blame for these losses. Though this problem is global, in 2019 the United States was the worst culprit, wasting 7.1 animals per person compared to the global average of 2.4 animals per person. 

Though food waste is typically considered a food security problem, it also raises significant environmental concerns. Food systems account for around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since meat has a much higher carbon footprint than plants, wasting it destroys more than animals in vain. 

So how does this waste stack up?

Food Waste at Farms

Chickens are bred to grow so unnaturally large and fast that their bones can’t support them. This leads to many health problems that often result in premature death and ultimately food waste.

About one-quarter of wasted animals die from disease and injury at farms in North America. Animals raised for industrial food production have been selectively bred over generations for efficiency. Rapid growth is prioritized over their well-being, which results in a host of health problems. Chickens make up a whopping 93.6% of the deaths. These birds are bred to grow so unnaturally large and fast that their bones can’t support them. They suffer immobility, broken bones, and constant pain due to unsustainable growth rates.

Ingrid de Jong, a senior scientific researcher of chicken behavior, finds that “slower-growing breeds usually are more robust and have lower mortality.” Since the 1950s, the growth rate of a typical chicken raised for meat has increased over 400%, bringing today’s chickens to slaughter weight in five to six weeks. 

Unfortunately, this rise in growth rate causes a host of health problems. In the Netflix docuseries You Are What You Eat, Craig Watts, a Transfarmation farmer and whistleblower, discusses his routine observations as a chicken farmer for Perdue:

The organs won’t keep up with the muscle growth, the skeletal system won’t keep up with the muscle growth, so you see a lot of heart attacks, you see other issues, you see a lot of birds that can’t stand, they can’t support their own weight. I just think the bird is bred to suffer.

—Craig Watts, You Are What You Eat

 Though chickens are the most impacted by this, turkeys and pigs also fall victim to cruel breeding, resulting in life loss and waste. Cows account for the fewest deaths at farms.

Food Waste in Transport

Turkeys are densely packed in a transport truck. They are exposed to the elements, leaving them vulnerable.

Animals who live long enough to reach slaughter weight are packed into trucks and sent to be butchered. An additional 7% of wasted animals die during transportation. That means over 30% of wasted animals in our food system never even reach a slaughterhouse.  

More than 34,000 birds died in a Pilgrim’s Pride transport incident. Dena Jones, director of the farmed animal program at Animal Welfare Institute, explains it through the lens of a profit-driven industry: 

Because so many birds are raised for meat in the U.S.—and the life of a single bird has almost no value to the industry—even 34,000 is viewed as inconsequential.

—Dena Jones, Animal Welfare Institute

Food Waste in Processing

About 20% of food waste occurs during the processing and packaging stage. This is where animals are slaughtered, dressed, and partly prepared as food products.

An additional 20.6% of wasted animals are lost during processing and packaging. In this stage, animals are slaughtered, dressed, and partly prepared as food products. Bruce Taylor, the president of food waste consultancy Enviro-Stewards, claims much of this waste is linked to “sheer inertia” in slaughterhouses and processing facilities. Familiarity with inefficient processes and faulty machinery not only causes waste but prevents workers from implementing efforts to reduce waste. Consultancies like Enviro-Stewards convert waste into a dollar value and suggest changes that can not only reduce waste but save money. 

Enviro-Stewards estimates that their work has eliminated $11.2 million in food loss and 20.5 million pounds in food waste. 

Consumer Food Waste

The lion's share of food waste owes to consumers.

Grocery stores account for about 13% of the 18 billion wasted animals, but the lion’s share of food waste owes to consumers. Each animal product wasted by consumers carries the emissions and labor from all the other stages, including the grocery stocking and selling stages. This means consumers have the largest cumulative waste footprint in the entire chain. We can all take steps to reduce the amount of food that winds up in landfills. One of the most effective ways to decrease the number of wasted animals and the carbon footprint of our meals is to increase our intake of specialty crops—vegetables, fruits, grains, and mushrooms—whenever possible. 

Building a More Sustainable Food System

Transfarmation is working every day to build a better, more sustainable food future.

In April, we celebrate Earth all month long. We remember the staggering number of animals lost to food waste and food-system inefficiencies, as well as the people who labored at each step of production. The need for a food-system shift is abundantly clear. 

Our current industrial model, driven solely by efficiency to maximize profit, doesn’t value animal lives, contributes greatly to food waste, and undermines sustainability efforts. We must call for a more compassionate and sustainable approach to food production and consumption, one that respects the interconnectedness of all life on our planet and prioritizes ethical and environmentally responsible practices over short-term gains. 

Only by challenging and transforming our existing food system can we truly create a more equitable, humane, and sustainable future for all.