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Calves shipped from Hawai'i to mainland in "cow-tainers" for up to a week

Compassion in World Farming is known the world over for its campaign to end the live export of animals on long and often grueling journeys overseas. With New Zealand having banned the practice in 2023 and the UK finally set to ban live exports in the coming weeks after 60 years of campaigning, other countries are reviewing their own live animal export business and assessing them against basic animal welfare.

In the United States, around half of our live animal exports end up in either Mexico or Canada, the two countries with which we share a land border. But there is a somewhat hidden trade in live animals from the islands of Hawai’i to the US mainland which is happening right under our noses.

Though most of the Hawai'i-born calves moved through the U.S. and Canadian west coast container ports almost under the windows of major animal advocacy groups, there appears to have never been an undercover investigation of the trade, never a protest, never a lawsuit, and never a mailing.

—Animal People Inc., October 2011

Brown cow peering out from behind the bars of a transport container.

History of the Hawai'i Cattle Industry

Cattle were established on the Hawaiian Islands in 1793 when Captain George Vancouver gifted six cows and a bull to King Kamehameha. After initially placing a “kapu” or prohibition on their hunting and killing which led to a huge expansion in their numbers, ranching was established on the islands in the early 1800s. Today, Hawai’i is home to 150 or more ranches raising an estimated 148,000 cattle in 2023. Hawai’i’s lush climate and undulating topography offer year-round grazing and a competitive advantage that means cattle is the state’s second most valuable agricultural commodity, with three of the islands’ ranches ranking in the top 25 nationally for cow herd size.

The Rise of Exportation

Container ship leaving a port with a "cow-tainer" on board.
Close up of a “cow-tainer” on board the Mahimahi container ship owned by the Hawai’i-based Matson shipping company, leaving the port of Honolulu, HI. Photo: Vladimir Tonic

However, most calves born on the islands don’t get to live out their lives in the tropical paradise. Because of the high price of feed imports and a lack of slaughtering facilities on the islands, around 95% of calves born and sold in Hawai’i are shipped to the US mainland for fattening and slaughter when they’re less than a year old. Exporting a calf under 400 lbs to the mainland provides producers with more income than it takes to grow a cow to maturity in Hawai‘i.

Calves who are often only a month or two weaned from their mother’s side are either flown to airports or, more commonly, shipped long distances on container ships.

As many as 80 newly weaned calves are crammed into custom modified 40-foot containers, known in the industry as “cow-tainers.” The animals have as little as two inches between their heads and the ceilings. After boarding in Hawai’i the animals face a long journey to ports on the west coast of the United States such as Los Angeles and Seattle, more than 2,500 miles away. From the coast, the animals may be transported to feedlots as far as Texas for fattening and finishing. The journey by sea takes between 5-6 days, with up to three more days for preparation and loading. An average journey to Vancouver is 8-10 days.

A "cow-tainer" with its entry doors open.
A Hawaiian "cow-tainer," used to ship cattle across the ocean. Photo from Canadian Cattlemen, The Beef Magazine, 2017.

The calves face rough seas in winter and high temperatures in summer. Qualified veterinary care is not compulsory on these long-haul journeys. Sick cattle are only treated “if feasible” according to guidelines produced by the Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council and decisions related to the disposal of bodies at sea are left to the ship’s captain. Verifying the number of injuries and deaths on board is not possible because producers and shippers are only “encouraged” to record losses every six months.

The only known academic study of conditions inside these cow-tainers documented the calves lost around 7% of their weight as a result of their journey. Most of this “shrinkage” is tissue loss. During this study of 48 cattle, two showed signs of pneumonia and one of the calves died. Many of those who survived the journey demonstrated heat stress, which has been identified as a major contributor to poor welfare and premature death.

In 2019, 21 pregnant cows died on a barge traveling from Oahu to Kauai when their cow-tainers were stacked too tightly leading to inadequate ventilation and causing the animals to slowly suffocate.

The shift towards exporting calves from Hawai’i instead of raising them locally is a relatively recent phenomenon. The change began in the late 1980s as a result of high prices for imported grain and relatively lower transportation costs for live animals. Hawaiian producers found it was more profitable to ship calves to the mainland for fattening and finishing than it was to raise them in Hawai’i for a smaller consumer market. The closure of the last feedlot on Oahu and a lack of local slaughtering facilities compounded the economic incentives for local ranchers to export for more profitability. Today, Hawai‘i ranchers export an average of four times as many cattle as they harvest.

Live Cattle Exports (head)

  2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
US → Canada 274,543 270,235 394,026 310,275 287,684
US → Mexico 22,233 32,528 92,265 103,121 44,198
US → Rest of World 10,527 18,000 24,489 10,764 17,408
Hawai'i → Mainland 38,710 38,640 37,831 30,127 36,288
Graph of Hawaii Cattle Exports to both the US mainland and the rest of the world.
Source: USDA Economic Research Service, Hawai'i Department of Agriculture

Looking Ahead

Hawaiian beef has a reputation for freshness and taste. Despite exporting around 95% of calves born and sold in Hawai’i to the US mainland, only around 10% of beef consumed in the Aloha state is produced locally, the rest is imported. The export of live cattle to the mainland followed by the import of out-of-state beef, rather than raising and slaughtering the animals locally, presents obvious efficiency and environmental concerns.

As part of its longstanding campaign to ban live exports, Compassion in World Farming is calling on Hawaiian authorities to:

  • End the live export of cattle to the mainland for fattening and finishing.
  • Encourage a reduction in the consumption of beef and other animal protein.
  • Develop the state’s home-grown and grass-fed beef market to replace intensively farmed beef through investments in marketing and local processing facilities.

Take Action

You can help by signing the petition to ban cruel and dangerous exports now.

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