Historically, the US farmed animal welfare movement has seen itself as working in opposition to the entire animal agriculture industry. In doing so, we may have taken on a larger and more powerful enemy than we need to. I’ll explore an alternative approach of working with parts of the meat industry to mutually push for strong welfare protections in other parts, focusing on chicken and beef.
Small animals account for a vast majority of the suffering in animal agriculture. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, this has rightly caused the animal advocacy movement to more recently focus on chicken, fish, and invertebrates. Taking this one step further, if most of our focus is only on certain parts of animal agriculture, we may not need to see ourselves in opposition to the entire industry.
In particular, I argue that the US beef industry could be a critical ally in the fight for farmed animal welfare. It may seem unlikely that the beef industry would be interested in partnering with animal welfare advocates, but a deeper analysis of the structure of the industry indicates that incentives may be more aligned than they first seem:
- Chickens don’t have the same welfare protections as cows, which is unfair to beef producers.
- Chicken is substantially cheaper than beef, partially because producers don’t have to treat chickens as well as cows. Chicken and beef compete for space on the plate, so if the price of chicken goes up, this will likely increase demand for beef.
- The beef industry is large and complex, with multiple different players whose incentives are not always aligned. The three main pillars of the beef sector are ranchers, feedlot operators, and the big meat packers. The meat packers have interests across chicken, pork, and beef, so will likely oppose animal welfare improvements in any area. However, ranchers and feedlot operators are generally only invested in beef, meaning that welfare improvements in chicken wouldn’t directly affect them.
Additionally, I believe that cattle ranchers, who are generally small business owners, often do care about animal welfare. If framed in the right way, they could be inherently interested in seeing farmed animals treated better.
Partnering with the beef industry could be useful in building broader coalitions than the animal welfare movement historically has been able to. Additionally, if the goal is to eventually pass stronger federal legislation for poultry welfare, having the beef industry on board could be a critical necessary step.
- Existing federal laws are unfair to beef producers
- Increasing the price of chicken will benefit beef producers
- Background on the structure of the beef and chicken industries in the US
- The incentives of cattle ranchers
- The incentives of feedlot operators
- How to find common ground with the beef industry
I. Small animals should dominate farmed animal welfare discussions
One of the most important recent theoretical developments in farmed animal advocacy has been a focus on small animals, mainly chicken, fish, and invertebrates. This was very influenced by EA-style thinking: chickens vastly outnumber other land animals because they’re smaller (In 2022, poultry accounted for 98% of animals slaughtered for the US food supply). Going further, fish outnumber land animals, and invertebrates outnumber vertebrates. Insofar as we care about the suffering of individuals, this suggests that we should focus on small animals over larger ones like cows and pigs.
More nuanced analyses bear this out–see e.g. Tomasik and Faunalytics. These studies found that the most important products to replace with alternative proteins are chicken, eggs, and fish. The Faunalytics study included an analysis of days spent on factory farms, and found that cows account for only around 5% of the days spent on factory farms. Even this figure, however, likely significantly overstates the total percentage of suffering that cows account for. Faunalyitcs treated any day of an animal on a farm as equivalent, but cows are treated much better than other animals like pigs or chickens:
- Beef Cows spend much of their life grazing in fields before they’re transferred to high-concentration operations.
- Even in the higher density operations, they’re not packed as tightly as chickens.
- There are federal protections for cow welfare when they’re transported and slaughtered. (see “Legal Protections” section).
On the other hand, most chickens spend their entire lives in hellish conditions on high-density farms. Overall, this suggests that the vast majority of the suffering caused by animal farming happens outside of the beef industry.
Historically, the animal welfare movement has sought an alliance with the environmental movement, but more recently this alliance has come into question given that most of meat’s carbon footprint is from beef. Unfortunately, this pushes the incentives of the animal welfare movement and the environmental movement in different directions. There is a worry that general meat reduction advocacy, especially with an environmental message, could cause people to displace their red meat with white meat, which is bad for animals (sometimes called the “Small Animal Replacement Problem”).
II. The incentives of the beef industry are structurally aligned with the animal welfare movement
An analysis of the legal protections, the price, and the structure of the supply chain between beef and chicken indicates that some players in the beef industry may have incentives that are structurally aligned with the animal welfare movement.
A. Existing federal laws are unfair to beef producers
There are two federal laws that explicitly protect farmed animals:
- The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which says that livestock must be rendered insensitive to pain and unconscious prior to slaughter
- The 28 Hour Law, which purportedly sets animal welfare standards during transport, but whose enforcement is potentially lacking
Unfortunately, the USDA has interpreted both these laws to exclude chickens, which make up a vast majority of the animals that we eat. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for this exclusion, but it’s reasonable to assume that chickens are exempt partially because there are so many more of them. It would be substantially more difficult for a chicken producer to guarantee that millions of chickens were unconscious before slaughter than it would be for a beef producer to guarantee the same for thousands of cattle.
This can be seen as plainly unfair to beef producers. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in particular is clearly meant to protect animals from the horror of an inhumane slaughter, and was passed with overwhelming public support. When the law was passed in the 50s, Dwight D. Eisenhower purportedly said “If I went by mail, I'd think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter.” One can therefore argue that instead of over-valuing the burden of compliance on producers, the law should guarantee humane slaughter for all animals, and agricultural practices should be adjusted accordingly.
B. Increasing the price of chicken will benefit beef producers
An important aspect of the dynamic between beef and chicken is that chicken is roughly 3 times cheaper than beef, on average. There are many reasons for this, one being that feed is around 70% of the cost of meat, and chickens more efficiently convert feed calories to meat. A further reason is that chickens don’t have the same protections as cows do. Animal agriculture is generally highly optimized and high-throughput, meaning that any small change can affect the price. For an example in a slightly different context, California’s cage ban on eggs from caged hens increased the price by 72 cents per dozen, which is impressive considering that national prices hover around $1 per dozen.
Current welfare guidelines for chickens used for meat (which are encouraged, but not required) recommend inspecting a random sample of birds at slaughter, to ensure that the birds are generally being slaughtered humanely. It would be a non-trivial additional cost for chicken producers to ensure, like cattle producers already do, that each individual animal is slaughtered humanely.
Further, meat products substitute for one another, meaning that an increase in the price of chicken would likely lead to a corresponding increase in the demand for beef. Therefore, improvements in chicken welfare that raise the price of chicken are economically beneficial for beef producers.
C. Background on the structure of the beef and chicken industries in the US
One might worry that since the big meat companies all operate across chicken, pork, and beef, it may be difficult to get different parts of the sector to work against one another. However, the beef industry is structurally unique in that there are many different players with differing incentives.
It may be helpful to have some context on the structure of the animal agriculture sector. At a high level, the meat supply chain can be broken down into three stages:
- Animals live on farms eating food to gain weight until they’re slaughter ready.
- They’re then transferred to facilities where they’re slaughtered.
- Carcasses are then processed into smaller cuts, eventually becoming the meat products we eat.
One of the most important high-level trends in the meat industry is increasing integration (one firm managing multiple consecutive parts of the supply chain), and consolidation (big firms controlling a large percentage of the market). When people talk about “big meat companies,” they’re generally referring to companies like Tyson, Cargill, and JBS, that have interests across beef, pork and chicken. In the context of chicken, these companies are called “integrators,” and in the context of beef they’re called “packers.”
The chicken industry has seen the greatest vertical integration and consolidation in the meat sector. The big meat companies that control the entire supply chain give baby chicks to farmers, called “contract growers” who raise the chicks in factory farms to slaughter weight. The integrator then takes these chickens and transfers them to a separate facility for slaughter. The integrator technically owns the chicken for the entire time. Over 90% of chickens used for meat in the US are raised via this process.
The beef industry is substantially less integrated. This is likely because cows are bigger and the process of getting them to slaughter weight is longer and more complex. A cow will often change ownership multiple times before slaughter. For example, a cow may spend the first part of their life in a “cow calf operation” or a “stocker,” where they’re mainly grazing outdoors. When they reach about 500–800 pounds, they’re sold to a “feedlot,” which is better set up for quick fattening via a grain-rich diet. (This is what is normally meant by “factory farm” or “CAFO” in the beef context). Finally, when they reach slaughter weight of 1,100–1,400 pounds, they’re sold again to a meat packer for slaughter and processing. There is substantial variation in how much time a cow may spend in each part of the supply chain.
The big meat companies are completely integrated in the case of chicken. But, when it comes to cows, they are mainly only involved in slaughtering and processing (steps 2 and 3, but not 1). Only a few of the top feedlot operations are controlled by the big meat companies, and very few of the upstream cattle ranching operations are.
D. The incentives of cattle ranchers
Cattle ranchers breed and raise younger cattle. Ranchers are generally small business owners (the average beef cow herd is 40 head), geographically spread out across the country. They have a complicated relationship with the big meat companies to whom they sell. Ranchers depend on the meat companies as customers, but also worry about consolidation and anti-competitive practices. Seeing what has happened to contract growers in the chicken industry, ranchers want to avoid a world where a powerful, coordinated meat packing sector could push down prices and force ranchers into unfavorable negotiating positions.
The biggest trade organization for ranchers is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a group that has historically opposed animal welfare improvements in any part of animal agriculture. However, the NCBA also has close ties with the big meat packers, which many feel leads them to act against rancher’s best interest. The misaligned incentives of producers and packers had led to recent rifts in the coalition, which may become worse as the meat packers continue to grow in power.
There are a few smaller trade associations that don’t have the same ties to the big meat companies, whose focus could point to values the ranching community has that are underserved by the NCBA. For example, the US Cattlemen’s Association and R-CALF are rancher advocacy groups that have a more explicit focus on fighting anti-competitive practices by the big meat packers. Others like the American Grassfed Association, have even explicitly endorsed stronger welfare protections for chickens and pigs.
Importantly, cattle ranchers usually only have interest in beef, while meat packers have interests across beef, pork, and chicken. A compelling argument to cattle ranchers could be that the historical coalition between beef and chicken producers is something the big meat packers push at the expense of ranchers. Helping chickens would impose costs primarily on the big meat packers, which:
- Would not directly affect ranchers' bottom line
- Would marginally weaken the big meat packers, improving the negotiation position of ranchers
- Would increase the price of chicken, and hence the demand for beef
Finally, I believe that care for animals can actually be a unifying factor with animal advocates rather than a divisive one, assuming that ranchers don’t feel like their entire way of life is being questioned. In my experience, many farmers and ranchers care about animal welfare, similarly to most people in American society (I expand on this in my post Reasons to be Optimistic for Farmed Animals). When interacting with folks that raise cattle, it can be striking the extent they express admirable care for the animals under their stewardship. They may not have the freedom to act on this care to the extent that they want, given economic pressure they face from the market.
E. The incentives of feedlot operators
Feedlot operators purchase cattle from ranchers and put them on a specialized diet to gain weight as quickly as possible. Feedlot operations are generally large and high throughput, with 77% of cattle going through feeding operations with greater than 1,000 head. The goal is to get each cow to slaughter weight as quickly as possible so that they can be sold to the meat packers for slaughter and processing.
Feedlot operations are the current battlefront in the progress of vertical integration by the big meat packers. A few of the top feedlot operators are owned by big meat companies (JBS’ Five Rivers Cattle Feeding notably being the largest operation in the country), but most are independently owned and not invested in chicken. Feedlot operators are potentially promising allies because players are larger and more individually powerful, and businesses may be more likely to act purely on economic self interest.
F. How to find common ground with the beef industry
Given the stark inequalities in the way our laws treat different animals, and given that chicken is so much cheaper than beef, it’s fair to say that chicken is undercutting its competition by sidestepping regulations that everyone else has to follow. Therefore, one set of policies that ranchers and feedlot operators could support (or at least not oppose) is humane slaughter requirements for poultry. This could take the form of state laws, or extending the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to include poultry. There is already a bill in the Senate that would do this, among other things.
Further than that, there’s a straightforward economic case that any welfare restrictions in poultry will cause the price of chicken to go up, which will increase the demand for beef. Therefore, in the long term, any sort of welfare improvements for chickens (e.g. regulations on stocking density or line speeds) could be in the best interest of the ranchers and feedlot operators.
Finally, if the arguments around economic self interest are not enough, I believe that the idea of providing all farmed animals basic welfare is commonsense and uncontroversial. If those within the beef individuals don’t feel that their entire livelihoods are being threatened, I believe many could be on board with treating farmed animals better.
III. How the beef industry might be helpful in the fight for animal welfare
Despite fairly impressive progress over the last few decades (around ⅓ of egg-laying hens in the US are now cage-free), and despite the fact that most Americans are broadly supportive of farmed animal welfare (75% of people express discomfort with current farming practices), the movement can feel very niche. Most of the voices advocating for farmed animals are urban and left leaning, and coalitions with other movements are rare. Calls for welfare improvements could carry more weight if they came from within the meat industry itself, and from rural, right-leaning voices. This is likely to be useful for a wide range of the animal welfare movement’s goals.
A. Beef industry support may open up the path to federal poultry welfare legislation
As one concrete example of how this broadened support may be useful, beef industry support may prove structurally important future federal poultry welfare legislation. This is especially salient right now, as the movement’s historical strategy of state-level laws is at risk due to a case currently under deliberation by the US Supreme Court.
For background, the biggest recent policy wins for farmed animal welfare have happened at the state level. There have been a number of state laws passed in the last two decades outlawing the most harmful practices, such as cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for mother pigs, veal crates, and foie gras. These laws mainly banned the production of meat using such techniques, which was important progress but likely infeasible for states where the meat industry is concentrated. Some of these new laws, like California’s Proposition 12 made it illegal to sell pork and eggs produced via banned methods, meaning that an egg producer in Iowa couldn’t produce eggs using cages and then ship the eggs to California. Given how much of the country’s meat is consumed in California, this was a major win for animals.
However, the state sales-ban strategy is now at risk due to a legal challenge to Prop 12 by the pork industry, currently under deliberation by the US Supreme Court. The pork industry’s argument is that California’s sales ban places an unconstitutional restriction on interstate commerce. There are many possible outcomes, but in the worst case, the court could prevent any state from banning the sale of animal products from other states. Given that chicken and egg production is concentrated in a few states, this would severely limit our ability to protect a majority of chickens used for food in the US.
If the state sales-ban strategy proves infeasible, the movement may be forced to look at the federal level. Unfortunately, the meat industry has considerable influence in the federal government, making this path extremely difficult. In order for a bill to even be voted on, it must make it through the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate, which are generally made up of politicians from agricultural geographies. However, if the beef industry supported, or at least didn’t oppose, federal poultry welfare legislation this would carry a substantial amount of political weight:
- The beef industry is the largest economic force within animal agriculture. The market size of the beef industry is around $136B, while chicken is only $31.5B. The largest trade group for beef has an annual budget of $64.5M, while the analogous trade group for chicken has a budget of $14.3M.
- There are roughly 25,000 poultry factory farms in the US compared with 700,000 cattle operations, meaning that the beef industry employs substantially more people.
- Geographically, cattle ranching is dispersed throughout the entire country, meaning that many politicians are accountable to ranchers. Chicken production, on the other hand, is concentrated in the Southeast and Delta states.
A. Historical Opposition
The best and most obvious counterargument to this approach is that historically, the beef industry has been one of the loudest voices against animal welfare improvements in other areas. Two cases come to mind:
- In 2011, The Humane Society of the United States forged an unlikely alliance with the egg industry to lobby for cage-free legislation at the federal level. This initiative ultimately failed, because of lobbying by the broader meat industry. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) was one of the main voices of this opposition.
- In the recent US Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of Prop 12, the NCBA came out against the law.
The NCBA’s rationale in both situations was similar: they see any regulation in one part of animal agriculture as potentially leading to regulation in other parts. However, there’s reason to question how much the NCBA was speaking on behalf of the entire beef industry given their aforementioned ties to the big meat companies. Given that there are few, if any, substantial new animal welfare laws under discussion that would affect beef producers, it’s possible that opposition has primarily been coming from meat companies with interest across many different animals.
That said, it does make some sense that the beef industry would see animal welfare improvements as “the meat industry versus animal advocates,” given that this is also how animal advocates have traditionally seen things. Additionally, given the increased scrutiny from the environmental movement on beef, it may seem like there is a general liberal-leaning movement against them. Therefore, when building this coalition, some potentially useful things are:
- Emphasizing the extent to which chicken and fish matter most for animal welfare
- Distinguishing ourselves from the environmental movement
- Having a common future vision that does not involve the complete abolishment of the meat industry and livelihoods of everyone who depends on it. (For more on this, see my post A Vision for Animals in the Future.)
The beef industry might also worry about souring positive relationships with current allies. For example, if the beef industry started to criticize chicken, then the chicken industry could start more explicitly marketing itself as a sustainable alternative to beef. This worry could be assuaged by pointing out that, as explained above, the chicken meat industry (unlike the beef industry) is controlled almost entirely by the big meat companies. Given that these companies want a unified meat sector, it would not be in their interest to escalate potential conflict between chicken and beef.
Finally, it’s possible that wounds from previous battles may prove too deep to overcome. Especially so given that meat consumption is increasingly becoming a culture war issue that divides people into traditional right (pro-meat) vs left (anti-meat) divides.
All that said, I’m not aware of any previous attempt to reach out to the beef industry for collaboration, so there’s little direct evidence on what reception might be like.
One might worry that this approach risks making climate change worse by emboldening the beef industry. If this ends up being true based on concrete interventions that flow from this approach, I think the gains in animal welfare are likely to outweigh the sustainability cost (some analyses from a personal diet perspective here and here). Additionally, there are other solutions to beef’s sustainability issues consistent with current farming practices, such as cattle feed additives that reduce methane. (This also points to one potential worry about over-indexing on climate change messaging when the ultimate goal is to help animals. Support generated from this messaging could disappear when the industry solves its problems via other means).
(The following section is a bit of a tangent and is more theoretical. It’s not necessary for my core argument, so skip it if you’re not interested)
One worry could be that developing close ties with the beef industry might take us farther away from eventually abolishing factory farming. A simple response to this is that given how much of the harm comes outside of the beef industry, it’s a minor concession to solve a major problem with chicken.
However, a more important question is whether abolishing animal farming is actually what we want. Often, attempts to outline theories of change for animal welfare take it as granted that the goal is to end factory farming. However, one can imagine that it would be difficult to find common ground with a cattle rancher if there was an implicit understanding that one wanted to end the rancher’s entire way of life. That’s why I believe it’s important to have a shared common vision, where the end goal is a world where animal farming still exists, but in a much more humane form.
Adopting this vision of the future isn’t just a practical matter, solely meant to find common ground with potential partners. There are independently good reasons why this may be a more sensible future to work towards:
- Most animal advocates believe that farmed animals live net negative lives, which is probably true, especially for chickens. However, in a theoretical world where the animals lived net neutral or positive lives, it would no longer make sense to want to eliminate animal farming entirely (although further welfare improvements would continue to be highly leveraged, hence worthwhile). Indeed, if we had a system where we could create billions of sentient beings with net happy lives, many ethical systems would say this is a good thing, even if the end goal was for food.
Some may counter by saying any system in which we view animals as means to profit will inevitably lead to their abuse. However, in my mind this is an empirical claim where a healthy amount of uncertainty is warranted. There are many areas of society that are heavily regulated, often over-optimized to avoid causing harm (e.g. nuclear energy, healthcare). It’s at least possible to imagine a world in which every stage of an animal’s life was tightly controlled to protect their welfare. In such a world, protections for individual animals would necessarily affect small animal farming more, since there’d be more animals to protect.
- More speculatively, from a values-spreading perspective, promoting a mindset of stewardship over all living things might prove valuable. In the moral challenges to come after farmed animals (wild animals, digital minds, etc.), it won’t be enough merely to avoid causing active harm. We’ll have to learn to think critically about how to protect the welfare of beings that can’t protect themselves, and whose minds may differ from our own. We’ll also have to get in the habit of proactively taking care of the beings we find ourselves co-existing with, no matter how they got there.
V. Why I’m focusing on chicken and beef
In this post, I didn’t address how the pork, seafood, and invertebrate industries might fit into this picture. Structurally, the pork industry is more integrated and consolidated than beef, but less so than chicken. For this reason, their incentives are somewhat less aligned with the animal welfare movement. Additionally, the animal welfare movement is currently focused on banning gestation crates for mother pigs, which directly affects pork producers.
I’m less familiar with the seafood and invertebrate industries, so an analysis of their incentives could be an interesting direction for further research.
VI. Call to action
The farmed animal advocacy movement has taken on a bigger, more powerful enemy than it needs to. By framing the debate as “animal advocates vs the meat industry,” we’re working against one of the most influential, most entrenched forces in our entire society. However, after noticing that the small animals deserve our primary focus, we have an opportunity to reframe the debate, build larger coalitions, and solve the core problem of animal suffering in a more effective way.
These are all theoretical considerations, none of which matter unless they cash out into concrete interventions that help animals. Will folks in the beef industry be receptive to this? If so, what do they care about most? What kind of programming can flow from this approach? Would this programming be cost effective?
I’m going to be exploring some of these questions over the next few months. If you’re interested in working with me, please reach out!
This post expands on a series of posts from my personal blog that are meant for a wider audience: Reasons to be Optimistic for Animals, A Vision for Animals in the Future, and Can Cattle Ranchers Join the Fight for Chicken Welfare?
I want to express my sincere gratitude to Alene Anello and Kathleen Finlinson for being thought partners for these posts, and for giving feedback on many, many drafts.