If you believe an animal activist group in Britain, millions upon millions of farm animals die unnecessarily right on the farm. So how do I refute that? Let me count the ways.

Here’s an incredible statistic — one I don’t believe, by the way — but here it is: According to a report set to be published just this week, more than 40 million farm animals are estimated to die each year in the United Kingdom before even making it to a packing plant.

You read that right: 40 million.

I’m skeptical first of all because the number seems highly inflated, if we’re talking about cattle, pig and sheep. Thanks to the ravages of both BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, as well as consolidation of the industry, what’s left of Britain’s herd amounts to only about 27 million animals—2.6 million cattle, 10,3 million pigs and 14.5 million sheep.

Second, the estimate of 40 million deaths was compiled by an animal activist organization, Animal Aid, British vegetarian/animal rights organization opposed to a typical litany of causes: grouse hunting, horse racing and medical research on lab rats. The group is also conducting a bizarre campaign to force the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to halt efforts to relocate and/or remove an invasive species of parrots that have taken up residence in London, causing problems by nesting on cell towers.

The fact that the birds are native to Brazil doesn’t matter; they deserve to nest wherever they want, according to Animal Aid.

But back to the 40 million deaths. The calculation, contained in a study titled, “The Uncounted Dead: Farming’s Unofficial Victims,” is — at best — an estimate by a group dedicated to PETA-like vegan lifestyles.

Among the statistics used to support their claim the group cited such incidents as:

  • 700,000 chickens that drowned in 2013 when a Lincolnshire farms was hit by a massive tidal surge
  • 2,000 pigs that perished in a fire in East Lincolnshire four years ago
  • 50 lambs that plummeted to their deaths into a well on a farm in Shropshire

Seriously — 50 lambs. Tragic (and puzzling; where was Lassie when they were marching by the dozens into a well?), but hardly a number that gets us anywhere near 40 million. However, by digging a little deeper into an article in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, the source of the group’s outrageous arithmetic came to light.

Along with 250,000 cattle, 750,000 pigs, 750,000 turkeys, 2.5 million sheep and 600,000 rabbits, ducks, and geese that (allegedly) died on farms, Animal Aid claimed that more than 38 million chickens die annually before being processed for human consumption.

That’s how they get to that nice, rough figure of 40 million dead animals: fully 95% of the deaths are chickens.

Purely speculative

Give the group credit for a clever piece of propaganda, because when the average consumer reads “40 million dead farm animals,” they’re not thinking, “Oh,that probably includes multi-millions of culled baby chicks.” No, the response is more like, “Omigod, 40 million cattle, pigs and sheep died? That’s just terrible.”

Which is exactly how Animal Aid wants their report to be viewed, and it doesn’t help when the media simply accept their pronouncements as “news” to be reported verbatim.

Of course, if you’re a dedicated reader, you eventually come to a sentence in The Guardian story that states, “The true number [of deaths] is currently unverifiable because neither the government nor the industry collate or publish data on animal fatalities.”

But how many people read to the end of a news story? Very few (including me).

As is true in most countries, producers and farmers in Britain are only required to report an animal’s on-farm death if it’s caused by a designated veterinary disease, such as foot-and-mouth or BSE.

So ultimately, whatever number animal activists toss out there is accepted uncritically, because no one really has a handle on any accurate data.

And let’s not lose sight of another estimate the media never mentions: the numbers of deaths among animals living free and easy in the wild — well, excepting those Brazilian parrots nesting on urban cell towers, that is. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even if Animal Aid’s numbers were accepted as is, it would mean that only about 4 percent of domestic livestock die prior to slaughter each year — with most of them being culled chicks.

Anyone want to pretend that less than 4 percent of all wildlife die from some combination of hunger, disease, exposure and predation every year? If that were true, the planet soon would be overrun with animals.

Of course, anyone who’s raised livestock, either commercially or as a hobby, understands that it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that every single animal born on a farm will survive to maturity.

But groups such as Animal Aid count on the ignorance of the public to propagate their “horrific” message about the farm mortality rate.

They’re not working to reduce unnecessary animal deaths. They want to pretend that animals never need to die.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator