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Animal welfare in the United States: Opportunities for impact

Updated: 2 days ago

This report analyses animal production in the United States, highlighting the industries with the highest levels of animal exploitation and focusing on egg and chicken meat production.

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Animal welfare in the United States - Opportunities for impact
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In this report, we give an overview of animal production in the United States. We explore which industries are responsible for the largest amount of animal exploitation in the United States. We touch on all major farmed and wild-caught sectors in the country, before taking a deeper look at egg production and chicken meat production.

Looking at how animal production is clustered by state and county, we point out where there are opportunities for animal advocacy organisations to make the biggest impact on the lives of animals. We also provide an overview of the economic forces that determine how animals are farmed and killed, which can help us to understand whether any given campaign will deliver the impact that we intend.

Lastly, we explore the different routes to changes, showing how different political levers can enable animal advocacy organisations to have a disproportionate impact on the lives of animals.

We want to help you!

Are you an animal advocacy organisation seeking to conduct a high-impact campaign? We would love to work with you—like the insights in this report, we can provide detailed, specific analysis for the campaigns that your organisation is interested in. This is an initial scoping report, and we have only scratched the surface. We can inform the choice of campaign to empower your organisation to do the most good for animals.

Know more about our services and get in touch with us here.

1. Different states bring different opportunities for animal welfare

In the United States as a whole, the pattern of animal farming and fishing is similar to the trends observed in other developed countries. Most of the animals farmed for food are:

  • Broiler chickens (~9 billion killed annually),

  • Aquatic animals (~2 billion killed annually), and

  • Egg-laying hens (~400 million alive at any one time).

In contrast, fewer pigs (235 million) and cows (70 million) are killed each year.

The following graph shows the most numerous groups of animals killed by humans in the United States. You can use the drop-down menu to look at the numbers for specific states.

* Note that the numbers for egg-laying hens are expressed as "alive at any one time", not "slaughtered per year". Since hens live for around a year or a bit longer, the numbers would be similar.

Delving deeper, we can see that specific industries tend to be concentrated in specific states. For the purposes of animal advocacy, it is perfectly reasonable to view the United States not as a single country, but as a network of 50 closely related countries that each has a distinct pattern of animal production.

This geographical clustering can empower animal advocacy organisations. When we think of animal exploitation in the United States, not many of us would immediately think of, say, Idaho. However, if you consider any given state, there's a decent chance that that state is responsible for a significant percent of one of the major animal industries. This offers advocacy organisations in pretty much any state the opportunity to have a disproportionately high impact. (More on this in the section "Routes to change", below.)

These trends are especially clear if we look at the following heatmap—you can pick a species and see how the production of that species is clustered across the country.

  • Baitfish: Of the 1.2 billion baitfish produced each year in the United States, about 0.8 billion are produced in Arkansas.

  • Catfish: Of the 214 million catfish produced each year in the United States, 123 million are produced in Mississippi.

  • Farmed shrimp: Of the 110 million shrimp farmed each year in the United States, 73 million are farmed in Texas.

  • Trout: Of the 37 million trout produced each year in the United States, 23 million are produced in Idaho.

  • Ornamental fish: Of the 90 million ornamental fish produced each year in the United States, around 60 million are produced in Florida.

Likewise, wild-caught fish and invertebrates are mostly landed by the coastal states (both Pacific and Atlantic). For a detailed analysis of the United States shrimp fishing industry, see our report available here.

The most numerous animals tend to be dispersed more widely across the country—most states are involved in the production of chickens, eggs, and pigs. However, even for these more dispersed industries, there are some states that are home to a disproportionately high number of animals.

  • Broiler chickens: Of the 9 billion broiler chickens produced each year in the United States, around 1.4 billion are produced in Georgia.

  • Egg-laying hens: Of the 400 million egg-laying hens in the United States, around 56 million are in Iowa.

  • Pigs: Of the 235 million pigs produced each year in the United States, around 60 million are in Iowa.

There are a few reasons for this geographical clustering—geography and climate play a role. For example, shrimp farming requires warm water, which is found in the warm, southern state of Texas. On the other hand, sometimes the clustering originates from historical accident—while baitfish production in Arkansas benefits from the state's climate and wild fish populations, the industry's development can be traced back to a few specific business ventures launched in the 1940s by people who happened to live in Arkansas.

2. Industries can be very concentrated

We also observe the geographical clustering at the local level. In the following interactive graph, you can select a group of animals and see how the production of that animal is concentrated by counties.

For example, if we look at crustaceans, we can see that crustaceans are produced in many states across the country, but most of the production comes from just a few counties in Louisiana. The same is true for trout in Idaho— most of the trout farmed in the United States come from a handful of counties.

Therefore, for many of these animal groups, there are just a few counties—and, in fact, just a few farms within those counties—that are responsible for the vast majority of the production.

3. The importance of economic forces

If we want to do as much good as we can for the lives of animals, it helps to have a grasp on the economic forces that determine how these animals are produced. Understanding these economic drivers is important to make sure that our advocacy efforts actually deliver the intended benefits for animals.

There are a few economic forces that are general, occurring across many types of animal production:

Animals are produced in locations that are different from where their meat is consumed. For example, seafood is mostly consumed in dense cities (1).

  • Consumers frequently substitute between different types of meat. This is especially important—and concerning—when consumers switch from beef to chicken (2–4). This can cause the "small body problem", which means that increasing the price of beef might actually cause more suffering than it solves (see an explanation of this problem here and in our previous report).

  • Food retail is very concentrated, and retailers have lots of power over prices (5).

  • Livestock markets are well-integrated across the country, so changes in production volume and price in one part of the United States will trigger responses in other parts of the country (6).

  • Fish and crustaceans markets are complicated. Different seafood products can be substitutes or complements, and this can change for different regions within the United States (7,8). It's not always clear how different products interact with each other on the consumer market, especially for wild-caught vs farmed products, and imported vs domestically produced products (9). This means we need to be cautious about campaigns that change the production volume or price of fish and crustacean products.

We have talked about farms and retailers, but it is also important to understand other businesses in the supply chain.

Consider meat processing plants. In the United States, meat processing tends to be dominated by a handful of large plants. This is shown in the following interactive graph.

The dominance of a small number of large-scale processing plants leads to an interesting conclusion. Large-scale meat packing plants can achieve economies of scale, thereby decreasing the cost of meat for consumers (10). The Biden administration has pursued an antitrust policy, aiming to break up large meat packing companies into smaller companies. The stated intent of this policy is to reduce the market power of meat packing companies, which the Biden administration hopes will reduce the price of meat (11). However, meat packing companies, despite being large, don't actually have much market power—retailers do (10). Therefore, the Biden administration's policy of breaking up large meat packing companies might increase, not decrease, the price of meat. For animal advocacy organisations, this is a useful lesson in how understanding the economic dynamics relating to a particular policy ask can give us a better understanding of the policy's consequences.

3.1. Deep dive: Egg production

Now, we will take a closer look at the economic forces underlying two of the major animal agriculture industries in the United States: egg production and chicken production.

Each year, the United States produces around 1.8 billion dozen eggs. These eggs are produced by a flock of laying hens that numbers about 370 million at any one time. Egg production is divided into two markets: the table egg market, which sells whole eggs (~70 percent), and the breaker market, which sells liquid and dried eggs to food production businesses (~30 percent) (12,13).

Most eggs are produced by a small number of farms. The 370 million egg-laying hens in the United States are housed on 200,000 egg-producing farms. However, 280 million of these hens are concentrated on just 320 farms.

The egg industry is quite unique in that most of the eggs are produced and consumed within the United States (14). Each year, the United States imports roughly 26 million dozen eggs (1.4 percent of domestic production) and exports roughly 175 million dozen eggs (9.5 percent of domestic production).

Therefore, most eggs farmed in the United States are eaten in the United States, and vice-versa. Trade is limited for two reasons: firstly, it is expensive and logistically complicated to transport eggs over long distances; and secondly, the United States has strict biosecurity rules that make it difficult for egg producers in other countries to sell to the United States. The most important trading partners are other countries in the Americas (e.g. Canada and Mexico), and specific countries in Asia (e.g. Japan and China).

Another reason why the egg market is unique is that eggs have no close substitutes (14). If the price of eggs increases, then consumers might buy fewer eggs and are unlikely to simply switch to some other animal product. The fact that it is difficult to import eggs supports this conclusion - retailers do not have the option of simply purchasing more eggs from overseas.

This means that animal advocacy campaigns that increase the price of eggs can cause sustained, long-term reductions in the number of animals farmed for food. An economic analysis of California's hen welfare legislation, which applied to all eggs sold in California, showed that the legislation caused a noticeable decrease in the number of hens farmed across the United States (15).

3.2. Deep dive: Chicken production

Turning to the production of chicken meat, we can see that the United States slaughters around 9 billion broiler chickens each year.

For chicken meat, international trade is somewhat more important. The United States exports the meat from around 1.6 billion broiler chickens each year (around 20 percent of domestic production), though the country only imports the meat from roughly 60 million broiler chickens each year (less than 1 percent of domestic production). This includes both meat and live chickens. Most of the chicken exports from the United States are destined for Canada, Mexico, China, and other countries in Asia and Central America. Notably, the United States competes with chicken producers in Argentina and Brazil for access to the Chinese market (16). This means that policies that affect chicken production in the United States can also have knock-on consequences on chickens farmed in these other countries.

The supply chain of chicken production in the United States is quite strange. The supply chain is dominated by very large companies called integrators (17,18). Integrators control multiple segments of the supply chain, supplying the birds and the feed to farmers and then processing the chickens during and after slaughter (19). The farmers, who sign contracts with the integrators, supply the land, facilities, and labor (17). These contracts can require the farmers to build barns to particular specifications, which often requires a large up-front investment from the farmer (20). Given this large investment and the fact that most areas only have a handful of integrators, it can be very difficult for many farmers to switch to a different integrator or leave chicken farming altogether (20,21). This means that the integrators have a very large amount of power, and the farmers very little (20).

Of the 9 billion chickens slaughtered in the United States each year, 7 billion are produced and slaughtered under the auspices of just 10 companies (22). This is despite the fact that there are around 43,000 actual chicken farms in the country. The reason is two-fold—a small number of these farms produce most of the chickens, and each large integrator holds contracts with many farmers. Chicken companies have occasionally been involved in price-fixing, and the past 50 years have seen numerous lawsuits against this (21).

4. Routes to change

How can animal advocacy organisations work to help animals farmed or caught for food in the United States?

The most promising route to change will depend on the specific ask that is best-suited to your organisation. We would love to work with you to investigate what this might be—to get in touch with us, see the top of this report.

Generally speaking, there are many promising routes to change:

  • State-level legislative lobbying. The states have lots of power over the lives of animals, and most of the animal welfare reforms in the United States happen at the state level. It is possible to speak to legislators in a particular state (state representatives) and ask them to introduce particular regulations. These regulations can involve animals produced in that state or, as in the case of California's hen welfare legislation, animals produced in other states but sold in that state.

  • Ballot initiatives. In many states and cities, it is possible to propose new regulations for direct vote—this has been a very successful strategy in securing hen welfare reforms in many states (15,23). Also, ballot initiatives and state-level legislative lobbying can support each other (23,24). For a detailed look at ballot initiatives, see the report by Jason Schukraft and the report by Aashish Khimasia.

  • Corporate campaigns. It is possible to ask retailers and food businesses to only buy meat farmed to specific welfare standards. This has been an overwhelmingly successful strategy over the past few decades (25–27). However, since corporations are often hesitant to speak with more than one animal advocacy organisation at a time, there are now fewer opportunities for new organisations to conduct corporate campaigns.

  • University or caterer campaigns. It is possible to speak with the people who oversee university dining halls and catering businesses, and encourage them to switch some of their ingredients to plant-based foods (28).

  • Environmental campaigns. The United States has many environmental regulations, but animal agriculture businesses do not always obey these regulations. Poorer environmental conditions are often observed around feedlots, which can harm people living in the area (29). It is possible to get the federal government to enforce regulations that are already on the books, thereby increasing the costs for some businesses. This strategy was used in a grassroots campaign in Iowa, utilising a "not-in-my-backyard" mentality among residents (30). On the other hand, this might just cause the production to shift to another location, rather than actually decrease.

  • Lobbying the Office and Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB, an office housed under the executive branch of the federal government, holds a large amount of power over how regulations are implemented and enforced in practice (31,32). If an organisation is aware of when the OMB is reviewing a particular regulation, it is usually straightforward to obtain a meeting with the OMB (31).

The one type of campaign that we do not find promising is legislative lobbying at the federal level. Over the past 50 years, it has been very rare for Congress to pass new animal welfare laws—this is partially because of lobbying by agricultural interests and partially because Congress has been happy to leave animal welfare regulation to the states (33,34). More recently, due to the Congressional gridlock over the past decade or two, it has become difficult for Congress to pass new laws on any topic. Of all the bills proposed in Congress, only ~1 percent actually get passed into law, and these tend to be the non-controversial, bipartisan bills (35). Due to the reluctance of Congress to touch animal welfare and the dysfunction of Congress in general, it would be more fruitful to focus on the other routes to change outlined above.

Data sources and limitations

The graphs and maps given in this report are derived from the following datasets:

If we have given a specific number in this report without directly citing a source, then that number also comes from our analysis of these datasets.

The datasets that we have used are not perfect. In particular, there are well-known problems with some aspects of these datasets:

  • It is widely known that wild-catch fisheries data from governments can be imperfect for a variety of reasons. This applies to commercial fisheries, but it is especially true for recreational fisheries. There are probably many fish and crustaceans killed in commercial and recreational fisheries that are not present in the data that we use. This is probably the biggest source of error in the figures given in this report—therefore, we encourage you to take the wild-catch numbers as useful and indicative but not perfect.

  • The weight estimates that we used to calculate numbers of animals are broad averages, and are not necessarily perfect representations of the industry in the United States.

  • Some aquaculture industries have specific problems with data. For example, many low-value industries (e.g. baitfish) have incomplete reporting of production, and data definitions can change over time.


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Cover image by Jessica Mangano on Unsplash


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