OPINION: The Shocking Facts About Non-Stun Slaughter – Why We Need To Insist Animal Welfare Comes Before Personal Religious Belief.
The scale of this issue is huge. Although there has been a reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered without stunning from 99k in 2011 to 21k 2017, there has been a steep rise in the number of other animals slaughtered without stunning between 2011 and 2017. The Vetinary Policy Research Foundation estimated in February that last year, 21,000 cattle, over 3 million sheep and goats and nearly 2 million poultry were slaughtered without being stunned, in other words, whilst they were conscious and aware of the pain and distress of slaughter.
The debate surrounding the stunning of animals at slaughter always seems to end up focussing on halal and the ritual, and obscures the core issue, which is the welfare of the animal. It is also based on false assumptions – in fact, 85% of meat certified as Halal comes from animals that were stunned prior to slaughter.
The Halal Food Foundation conducted a survey of 66 Islamic scholars and 95% of them said it was acceptable to pre-stun provided it did not cause death or injury or obstruct the bleed, so It is wrong to assume that non-stun slaughter is an inflexible requirement of Islam.
The usual method of non-stun slaughter (slitting the animal’s throat) is enough to make anyone with a modicum of compassion for animals feel utter revulsion. A study into pain perception at slaughter published in 2009 concluded that:
“…The results demonstrate clearly, for the first time, that the act of slaughter by ventral-neck incision is associated with noxious stimulation that would be expected to be painful in the period between the incision and subsequent loss of consciousness…..Ventral-neck incision elicits a cerebrocortical response that would be experienced as pain for the duration of consciousness… ” CB Johnson, “Pain perception at slaughter”.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC is an advisory body to the UK Government) said in 2003:
“When a very large transverse incision is made across the neck a number of vital tissues are transected including: skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins, major nerve trunks (e.g. Vagus and phrenic nerves) plus numerous minor nerves. Such a drastic cut will inevitably trigger a barrage of sensory information to the brain in a sensible (conscious) animal. We are persuaded that such a massive injury would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes.”
So, cutting the throat of an animal will cause pain and distress for the length of time it is conscious. Studies show that, after having their throat cut, poultry remain conscious for 12 to 15 seconds, sheep for 2 to 14 seconds and cattle for 4 minutes. An argument used by the supporters of non-stun slaughter is that the cut, if performed properly, operates as its own stun. It is perhaps comforting to believe that, but a study published in 2016 found that that response to certain external stimulation continued for up to 20 seconds in cattle slaughtered by the cut used in Shechita slaughter, disproving the theory that animals do not need to be stunned when they are slaughtered provided a particular type of cut is used.
Some of the timescales quoted in the studies do not sound like a long time, but if you count it out, it’s a long time to be suffering the pain of a mortal injury to an area filled with nerves.
True, the meat production chain is far from kind to animals – from animals being abused in slaughterhouses, being transported hundreds or thousands of miles to arrive dead or near to it, to factory farming – but it is the last act of decency in a harsh process. If we’re going to take the lives of animals to put meat on the supermarket shelf, the least we can do is minimise their pain and distress when we do it.
If it inflicts pain and distress on an animal to slaughter it without stunning, then it matters not what the religious justification is. These are physiological responses that cannot be prevented without stunning. And if it is unacceptable for one person to slaughter an animal whilst it is conscious when it could have been stunned, it is equally unacceptable for anyone to do so.
I believe the rules around ritual slaughter were put in place for a good reason and it is important to put ritual slaughter into its historical context: cutting the throat of an animal and allowing it to bleed to death, in comparison with other methods available at the time, has until relatively recently in human history, been the kindest and least distressing way of slaughtering an animal. Similarly, it is only comparatively recently that stunning animals before slaughter was an option and the ability to stun an animal enough to render it unconscious without killing it in the process is more recent still.
It should also be remembered that many of the rules of slaughter (eg not slaughtering an animal in sight of another) certainly appear to be there out of respect and compassion for the animal and furthermore, mirror practices that were only put into law for any animal in UK in the mid-20th century.
It could be argued that as the ritual was based on the welfare of the animal, now stunning is an available option, and clearly the kindest method for the animal, it could be considered part of the ritual. We at least need a serious, if not difficult, conversation with those who seek to continue non-stun slaughter.
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