In the UK, there are over 350 licenced slaughterhouses.
Secrecy surrounds the killing business and individuals
and animal welfare organisations
are rarely permitted to visit slaughterhouses. Even
the government's own advisory body, the Farm Animal
Welfare Council, has been refused access to some
the larger plants.
Viva! has been able to obtain video footage of stunning
and killing and we have also reviewed the latest scientific
research on slaughter. As a result, we have built up
an extremely disturbing picture of the reality of Britain's
How many animals are killed?
The total number of animals killed in British slaughterhouses
in 2011 was over 958 million.
This included 8.5 million pigs, nearly 15 million
sheep, 17 million turkeys, 15 million ducks, over 931
million chickens and 2.8 million cattle.
Add to that 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish you have a total of over 8 billion animals killed in the UK each year.
This equates to 22 million animals slaughtered every
day; 919,000 an hour; 15,000 per minute and 255 every
Legislation and enforcement
Legislation in slaughterhouses is covered by The Welfare
of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995
It is supplemented by 3 'pocket guides' to the law
published by the Government’s Department of the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) is responsible for ensuring
that legislation is being enforced in UK abattoirs.
Official veterinary surgeons (OVSs) monitor hygiene
and welfare standards with meat hygiene inspectors.
The MHS has been criticised by the European Commission
for not having enough OVSs in both poultry and red
abattoirs. OVSs are only obliged to observe slaughter
once a day and Viva! fears that meat hygiene inspectors
spend most of their time monitoring hygiene procedures
once animals have been killed, rather than observing
stunning and slaughter.
The Scientific Veterinary Committee of the European Commission
says that personnel involved in handling, stunning and slaughtering
animals should be trained on a periodical basis. This advice
has been ignored. The MHS animal welfare survey in 1998 revealed
that 30% of red meat slaughterhouses and 50% of poultry slaughterhouses
have little or no formal staff training in animal welfare.
The MHS simply suggests that at least one member of staff
should be trained and that this training should be 'cascaded'
down to other staff.
Viva! has discovered that slaughterhouses are still paying
their staff according to the number of animals killed in
day. The Farm Animal Welfare Council says that this practice
is not in the interests of the individual animal. Slaughtermen
may not want to point out problems under this payment system
and there is a risk that enforcement officers could be intimidated
or harassed by workers if they need to stop the line. Defra
and the Meat Hygiene Service say that it is not their business
how slaughterhouses choose to pay their workers.
Stun to kill techniques
Slaughter in the UK is still predominantly based around the
notion that the heart must continue beating after an animal's
throat has been cut in order to pump out the blood. Studies
have shown that in fact, it makes no difference whether an
animal's heart is still beating - the amount of blood lost
will be the same. As a result, new techniques have been developed
which stun and kill animals at the same time - either by using
gas (used for birds and pigs) or by using electricity to cause
unconsciousness and simultaneously give the animal a cardiac
arrest (used for sheep, pigs and cattle. See also Chickens,
Turkeys, Ducks and Geese). Only a small percentage of abattoirs
currently use these techniques.
These methods do at least remove the risk of animals regaining
consciousness while they are bleeding to death. However, gas
mixtures do not kill instantly and can cause great distress
if they contain carbon dioxide. The Scientific Veterinary
Committee of the EU say that when electricity is used , animals
do not always lose consciousness and can therefore suffer
a 'potentially painful' cardiac arrest.
The majority of cattle are stunned with the captive bolt
pistol. Penetrative captive bolt stunners drive a bolt into
and cause unconsciousness both through physical brain damage
and the concussive blow to the skull. The bolt on a non-penetrative
stunner is 'mushroom-headed'
and impacts on the brain without entering the skull. Unconsciousness
is caused by the concussive blow.
If an animal is not accurately stunned or the correct cartridge
strength is not used, the stun will not be effective. The
EU Scientific Veterinary Committee estimate that around 5
to 10% of cattle are not stunned effectively with the captive
bolt - or up to 230,000 animals a year. These animals experience
the pain of being shot in the head and will either be stunned
again (a difficult procedure) or continue on for knifing
In an attempt to improve accuracy, legislation requires that
cattle are either confined in a stunning pen or have their
heads 'securely fastened'. However, head restraint systems
can cause great distress. The MHS says that 17% of abattoirs
either do not use a restraint or use an "inefficient" restraint
which can result in the stun being delivered ineffectively.
Says abattoir vet Gabriele Meurer, 'Not many animals stand
still. They are all upset, some very frightened and some move
violently. The animals are never given time to calm down.
Sometimes the slaughterman misses, wounding the animal terribly
instead of stunning it. It may happen that the second shot
cannot be done immediately and the animal is suffering for
quite some time.'
In addition to the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment,
the electric goad can legally be used on the hindquarters
of cattle and pigs if they are refusing to move forwards.
This cruel device is intentionally designed to cause pain.
Worn out dairy cows may be subjected to a painful experience
before they are killed. It is becoming increasingly common
for novice artificial inseminators to 'practise' on cull cows
in abattoirs. For welfare reasons, novice inseminators are
advised to practise only on cows who will be slaughtered on
that day. The message here is that this practice is considered
distressing for cows - but that if they are about to be killed
then this does not matter.
The majority of sheep are stunned with a head-only electrical
stun. The operator places a pair of electric tongs on either
side of the animal's head and an electric current is passed
through the brain - supposedly causing a temporary loss of
The MHS says that the interval between stunning and knifing
can be as high as 70 seconds for sheep. Another study found
that the average interval was 21 seconds. Sheep take an average
of 14 seconds to lose brain responsiveness if both carotid
arteries (the major arteries that supply blood to the head)
are cut. UK law only requires one carotid artery to be cut
and in this case sheep take an average of 70 seconds to lose
brain responsiveness. Yet an electric head-only stun only
lasts between 20 and 40 seconds.
Viva! estimates that 4 million may regain consciousness each
year before they die and we have video footage showing sheep
regaining consciousness as they
bleed to death. If only one carotid artery is cut, sheep
may not be dead after the required 20 second bleed out time
they will therefore be skinned alive.
Researchers at Bristol University found that after an electric
stun, sheep are not able to feel pain but they are have periods
of being fully aware of their surroundings i.e. they can still
feel fear and they are conscious whilst hanging upside down
on the killing rail, bleeding to death. They could not prove
whether the electricity has an immediate effect and Dr Harold
Hillman, Director of the Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology,
says that when animals are stunned, they suffer extreme pain.
They are unable to cry out or move because the massive electric
current paralyses them. His evidence is based on reports from
human torture victims.
Most pigs are electrically stunned and research has shown
that the inaccurate placement of the electric tongs is a
problem within the industry. Research has shown that 36%
of tong placements do not span the brain as required by law.
13.3% of pigs are stunned on the snout and jaws - a position
which is not recommended because animals may fail to lose
consciousness. Viva! estimates that in the UK, 125,000 pigs
a year will not be stunned at all because of this.
Pigs stay unconscious for an average of 42 seconds but not
all pigs will be unconscious for as long as this. They take
up to 23 seconds to lose brain responsiveness, meaning that
the interval between stunning and knifing should certainly
not be longer than 19 seconds. But MHS statistics reveal
in many abattoirs, the interval between stunning and knifing
is longer than this. Viva! estimates that in the UK, approximately
a million pigs will regain consciousness before they die
loss of blood. We have video footage showing pigs regaining
consciousness as they bleed to death.
Says abattoir vet Gabriele Meurer, 'The slaughtermen are in
such a hurry that they often don't put the electric tongs
in the correct position on the pigs' heads. The pigs get only
half or insufficiently stunned, wake up while they bleed and
are obviously still alive and conscious when they plunge into
the boiling water. Sheep are stunned just as badly.'
25% of pigs - over 2 million a year - are stunned with
CO2 gas. It takes pigs up to 30 seconds to lose consciousness
and during that time they will squeal, hyperventilate and
try to escape. Pigs are supposed to be left in the gas chamber
until the gas kills them and then 'bled out'.
The captive bolt pistol is not recommended for pigs because
the brain lies deep down in the head and it is difficult to
cause unconsciousness. Yet the captive bolt pistol continues
to be used for pigs in a high number of low throughput premises.
Chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese
1.7 million birds a year die before they even reach abattoir
- from heart failure, dislocation of the hip and having their
skulls crushed when the drawers on the transporter are closed.
UK legislation states that turkeys can be shackled by their
legs for up to six minutes and other birds for up to three
minutes before they are killed - despite evidence showing
that the procedure causes extreme suffering. Chickens and
turkeys are bred to grow so fast that most suffer from painful
Before being killed, birds' heads are supposed to be immersed
in an electrified waterbath in an attempt to cause unconsciousness.
Some birds defecate during stunning meaning that birds can
inhale faeces when they are dipped into the waterbath. Turkeys
can also suffer painful pre-stun electric shocks because their
wings hang lower than their heads and can enter the bath first.
Despite attempts to change the system, scientists estimate
that around 6% of turkeys - or 2.1 million turkeys each year
- still receive prestun electric shocks.
Birds are known to "swan-neck" - raising their heads when
entering the electrical waterbath and so avoiding full immersion.
This is a particular problem for ducks and geese. Any birds
who are not stunned are meant to be decapitated by a 'back-up
killer' whilst conscious. The killer will be working with
a line speed of up to 9,000 birds an hour and any birds who
are missed continue on to the neck-cutter.
Birds routinely regain consciousness before they die if they
do not have a cardiac arrest when they enter the waterbath.
This is because they take much longer than mammals to lose
brain responsiveness. Broiler chickens have been shown to
recover consciousness 52 seconds after stunning in an electrical
waterbath. Hens have been shown to recover consciousness after
as little as 22 seconds. This means that birds who do not
have a cardiac arrest will recover consciousness after being
knived. It takes chickens nearly three minutes to lose brain
responsiveness if both carotid arteries are severed and around
5 minutes if one jugular artery and one carotid artery is
severed. If 90% of birds have a cardiac arrest at stunning,
a further 62 million birds will regain consciousness before
they die from loss of blood.
14 abattoirs appear to use automatic neck-cutters which only
sever one carotid artery. In this case, birds who do not have
a cardiac arrest at stunning will still be alive when they
enter the scalding tank. Viva! estimates that 8.4 million
birds will only have one carotid artery cut and will therefore
be conscious on entering the scalding tank.