Animal agriculture cannot exist without slaughterhouses, which are a key source of environmental pollution. Laws regulating these facilities are weak and poorly enforced, not only for the animals killed or the workers putting life and limb on the line, but for the environmental health of neighboring communities.
From direct disposal of pollutants into waterways to toxic runoff and water usage, slaughterhouses are significantly impairing North American waterways and putting wildlife at risk. Reducing the unsustainable U.S. demand for meat can reduce the number of animals processed, decreasing slaughterhouse waste and pollution.
Animal agriculture is a thirsty business, from growing feed crops for livestock in life to the sanitation of slaughter and rendering facilities in death. U.S. slaughterhouses use billions of gallons of water each year, which is then polluted and disposed of back into waterways.
In processing chickens, for example, water is used during scalding, de-feathering, evisceration, carcass washing and chilling. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the slaughter of a single chicken uses more than 4 gallons of water. For cattle, enormous water use occurs in every step of the slaughter process from live receiving to cleaning and sanitation.
Some slaughter wastewater treatment methods allow meat-processing facilities to recycle water, decreasing water consumption and pollution disposal. The main obstacle to water recycling is outdated.
Roughly 60% of waterways that receive waste from the major slaughterhouses in the United States are too polluted for drinking and recreational use. Slaughterhouses release more than 55 million pounds of toxic substances directly into waterways every year. Even with technologies available for mitigating pollution, the past two decades have seen a 25% increase in direct disposal of slaughter pollutants into waterways due to weak environmental protections.
On average a U.S. slaughterhouse may produce, in a single day, as much nitrogen pollution as untreated sewage in a city of 14,000 people. Slaughterhouses are also responsible for 14% of phosphorus disposed of directly into waterways by industrial sources. These chemicals impair water quality by activating algae growth and depleting the oxygen supply. This leads to dead zones and causes harm to aquatic wildlife, including species like largemouth bass, bluegill and catfish, as well as eels, mussels, crabs and crayfish. The largest dead zone in the United States, in the Gulf of Mexico, covers 7,000 square miles.
The Clean Water Act is the primary law protecting U.S. waterways from industrial pollution and defining quality standards for surface waters. The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with controlling water pollution and setting wastewater standards for the industry. While the Clean Water Act needs strengthening and enforcement, the EPA refuses to act even on existing standards. The result is that most slaughterhouses are still regulated using 1975 parameters.
Due to lax enforcement, large meat corporations violate the Act with few repercussions. A 2018 study found that of 98 slaughterhouses studied, three-quarters violated pollution permits. While one-third violated their permit 10 or more times, 18 had over 100 violations per day. The EPA has identified slaughterhouses as a primary industrial point source of nitrogen pollution, but the agency’s failure to act endangers wildlife, the environment, local communities and public health.
Slaughterhouses disproportionately affect already-vulnerable communities. Facilities that release waste directly into waterways are often built within a mile of marginalized communities; air and water pollution from these facilities leads to health problems including headaches, breathing and heart difficulties, and irritation in the nose, eyes and throat. Residents may be unable to open windows or go outside due to dangerous toxins in the air.
Slaughterhouse employees are often Black, Indigenous, Latino, immigrants, or from low-income communities, vulnerable to exposure and workplace safety violations. Slaughter, rendering and meat packing facilities are among the most dangerous operations in the United States.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a leading conservation organization fighting pollution from slaughterhouse facilities. We take the fight to the courts, demand stronger laws and enforcement, and call for updates to the Clean Water Act to better incorporate technological advances in pollution treatment.
Recently, following litigation brought by the Center and key allies in the 4th Circuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will update water-pollution control standards for the slaughterhouse industry.
Along with working for stronger laws, we are calling for better enforcement — and are taking on large meat corporations. Litigation work includes fighting industry attempts to skirt the law with line-speed waivers. Our lawsuits protect line-speed limits that regulate processing speeds to improve safety for workers as well as the humane treatment of animals during slaughter.
COVID-19 highlighted many flaws in the industrial meat-processing system, including the breakdown of the supply chain and slaughterhouse capacity. Disruption to processing and transportation of animals to slaughter meant that millions of animals had to be killed on-farm — through methods like gassing, shooting and suffocation — and disposed of by incineration and unlined burials, without proper review or disclosure. This was not only traumatic for all involved, but potentially toxic to environmental health. The Center was a key leader in the fight to prohibit these practices and shine a light on the environmental harms of mass livestock depopulation.