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November 2006
Long Distance Transport: It’s Time to Stop Driving the Pain
By Monica Engebretson


One of the most stressful events in a farmed animal’s life is transportation. Nearly all of the billions of farmed animals—whether conventionally, humanely or organically raised—are subjected to transportation at some point during their lives. It is also one of the most important welfare issues affecting farmed animals.

Unfortunately, transport distances and conditions have largely been ignored by humane labeling programs and animal protection laws.
At the federal level, Congress has enacted more that 50 statues regarding animal welfare, but only two laws address the welfare of animals raised for food or food production—the 28-Hour Law and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Although the 28-Hour Law requires that livestock transported across state lines in “rail carriers, express carriers, or common carriers” be humanely unloaded into pens for food, water, and at least five hours of rest every 28 hours, this law is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Were the 28-Hour Law enforced, it would still not be adequate to assure the well-being of transported animals. The law also falls far short of the nine-hour transport/12-hour rest period recently proposed by the European Commission and is seriously deficient when compared to the eight-hour limit proposed as an international standard by animal advocacy organizations.

Highways to Hell
It is well documented in scientific literature that time spent in transit is extremely stressful for farmed animals. Despite the considerable stress that transport causes, farmed animals are typically moved several times during their lives, often over large distances. It is standard practice for animals, once weaned, to be moved from “growing areas” to “finishing areas” for further fattening, and then moved again to the slaughterhouse.

Pigs, for example, may be shipped from farrowing operations in North Carolina to nursery or grower/finisher facilities in Iowa, where they are fed to market weights, then moved again to California for slaughter. Unfortunately, the number of animals affected appears to be escalating: the number of hogs crossing state lines increased from three million in the 1970s to five million in the early 90s, and totaled 26.9 million in 2001.

The toll transport takes on animals is great. Pigs are particularly sensitive to transport stress and many arrive injured or dead at the slaughterhouse. Approximately 260,000 pigs die per year during the transit process. It has also been estimated that, annually, about 82,000 pigs taken to market in the U.S. arrive “fatigued”—out of breath and unable to get off the truck on their own.

The situation is similar for cattle. In the fall, soon after weaning, beef calves from California to Colorado are transported to the Plains states to graze on cool-season pastures and then on to summer pastures or feedlots. In some cases, calves are sent directly to the feedlot. For about four months at the feedlot, cattle are fed high-energy rations of grain, silage, hay, and/or protein supplements—including the rendered by-products of other animals such as pigs and chickens—before being transported to auctions or directly to the slaughterhouse.

Cattle can become stressed, injured and exposed to disease during transport and movement through auctions. In the U.S., it is estimated that 120,000 feedlot cattle die as a consequence of transport stress. One study estimates that for every 1,000 cattle entering feedlots, 12 die.

Data on interstate livestock movement in the U.S. are highly fragmented and limited in geographic and historic scope, due to lack of accurate recordkeeping by individual states and the lack of a national animal tracking system. A 1998 study on interstate cattle movement found that only 18 of the 50 states record updated import and export information, using certificates of veterinary inspection and occasionally entry permits for verification. Not all of these states classified their import records based on the reason for import (e.g. feeding, grazing, breeding or slaughter).

This haphazard and inconsistent or non-existent tracking method has raised public health and safety concerns. A 2003 report by the non-profit Trust for America’s Health stated, “Without sufficient funding to track animal health, the U.S. is missing the chance to detect a zoonotic disease early, and control if not prevent its spread. This is troubling given that many bioterror agents are zoonotic.”

The inability to successfully track diseased livestock was demonstrated in December 2003 following the first confirmed case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or “mad cow” disease in an American cow—after seven weeks of tracking efforts, only one-third of the animals were found.

Over the Border
In the summer and fall of 2005, the Animal Protection Institute (API) and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) carried out a landmark investigation into the transport of live farmed animals throughout the U.S.—uncovering shocking conditions, and long days and nights of grueling travel. The investigation documented the transport of live cows within the U.S. and the transport of pigs from the U.S. to Mexican slaughterhouses.

Investigators documented animals arriving at and proceeding through auction with broken legs, infected eyes, foaming mouths, and bleeding cuts and sores. Dead and downed animals were also seen at the auctions. In addition, investigators filmed the unloading of “cull sows” (mother pigs from factory farms) destined for slaughter. Many of these pigs had difficulty walking, having spent nearly their entire lives in confinement.

During this investigation, API and CIWF were shocked to uncover the common practice of live pigs shipped over the Mexican border on crowded trucks through hours and hours of baking desert heat without food, water, or rest, only to be slaughtered at the end of the journey.

At one Mexican slaughterhouse, investigators were informed that more than 400 pigs were slaughtered per day, most of them from the U.S. Conversations between investigators and pig dealers in the U.S. revealed that low labor costs and the lack of government oversight are considered the primary (if not the only) benefits of sending live pigs to Mexico for slaughter.

Investigators also discovered that often, as the manager of one Mexican pork processing plant put it, the “raw product” (live pigs) is imported from the U.S., slaughtered and processed in Mexico, and then re-exported back north across the border.

Missing the Boat
The long distance transport of farmed animals has become an issue of international concern. Recently the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), a body with 164 member countries, recognized by the World Trade Organization as the leading authority on animal health, developed general guidelines for the care and handling of animals during transport and slaughter.

The United States is a member of the OIE, but has failed to develop regulations or laws to adequately meet global standards. However, both the European Union and Canada are in the process of updating and reviewing their animal transport regulations.

It is time for the U.S. to match international progress on this issue.

Specifically, Congress should enact legislation to regulate the transportation of animals used in food production to ensure humane treatment and disease control. In addition, the USDA should immediately develop voluntary guidelines based on the standards put forth by the OIE and monitor and measure compliance with these guidelines to determine effectiveness.

Public opinion surveys conducted in the U.S. have demonstrated that Americans are quite concerned about animal pain and suffering. In a national survey conducted in 1995 by Opinion Research Corporation for Animal Rights International, 93 percent of respondents agreed that “animal pain and suffering should be reduced as much as possible, even though the animals are going to be slaughtered.” While not everyone who is concerned about the treatment of farmed animals will take the most logical step and become vegan, most will support reforms aimed at reducing the suffering endured by animals used in food production.

Because animal protection legislation stems largely from civil society pressure, public education and advocacy will be vital in effecting lasting change for transported farmed animals. Consumer opinions and expectations regarding animal welfare have proven to be a major driving force in improving the welfare of farmed animals—as evidenced by food chains, grocers and restaurants that have developed their own animal welfare standards that their suppliers must meet. It is foreseeable that such standards could be extended to include transport limits.

Given the large number of animals affected, reducing travel distances and improving transport conditions would do much to reduce overall suffering endured by farmed animals even if it cannot resolve the fact that their lives will be prematurely and violently ended.

Monica Engebretson is Project Director for the Animal Protection Institute. To view the API and CIWF report on transport and for information on how you can help visit