Slaughter: how animals are killed
Every year in the UK around 1.2 billion land animals are slaughtered for human consumption. This includes over 1 billion chickens, 15 million turkeys, 14 million sheep, 2.8 million cattle, over 10 million pigs and almost 15 million sheep and lambs. In addition, almost one billion fish are killed and trillions of shellfish.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-20182Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. 2012. Aquaculture statistics for the UK, with a focus on England and Wales 2012. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/405469/Aquaculture_Statistics_UK_2012.pdf
These numbers are almost incomprehensible in their scale, so it’s no surprise that commercial slaughter is a disturbingly efficient, well-oiled production line that treats life as nothing more than a number.
Whether the final product is labelled as ‘free-range’, ‘organic’ or ‘pasture-reared’, or the slaughter method is deemed ‘humane’, a farmed animal’s final moments will end in pain and terror. The fact remains, all slaughter is taking away the life of an animal that doesn’t want to die. Many of these animals are babies or the equivalent age of teenagers; many are pregnant mothers.
What is meant by humane slaughter?
The principle of humane slaughter is to ensure that an animal cannot feel pain or experience suffering when he or she is killed. For this reason, it is the law that farmed animals in the UK are effectively restrained and stunned before they are killed, or else stunned and killed at the same time.
An exception is given to animals slaughtered under religious rites – both Halal and Shechita methods.
The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) state that ‘if a stunning method does not cause instantaneous insensibility, the stunning must be non-aversive (ie must not cause fear, pain or other unpleasant feelings) to the animal.’
Humane slaughter, however well it may be marketed, does not mean that an animal doesn’t experience extreme fear and terrible suffering.
There are many reasons why stunning an animal could be ineffective – faulty equipment, human error, poorly trained or unprofessional slaughter workers. Ineffective stunning, or mistunning, can leave an animal in an agonising state where they are paralysed, but still able to see, hear and feel everything when their throat is slit.
Statistics are not released on the number of animals inefficiently stunned and it is widely considered to be underreported by slaughter workers who don’t want to admit their negligence.
A Food Standard Agency survey in 2017 estimated that hundreds of millions of animals were killed without an effective stun, including 184 million poultry and 21,000 cattle.3Veterinary Policy Research Foundation (VPRF). 2018. Non-Stun Slaughter: Key Facts. Available at: https://vprf.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/non-stun-slaughter-vprf-fact-file-feb-2018.pdf
Slaughter in the UK is governed by EU legislation and UK regulations called ‘ Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing’ (WATOK). They issue licences and guidelines relating to slaughter methods, transporting and restraining animals in preparation for slaughter, and minimum competency requirements for slaughterhouse workers.
Slaughterhouses are overseen by the Food Standards Association (FSA) who can send an official FSA vet, or an officer from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), to inspect the slaughterhouse. Most of the time these inspections are pre-arranged with the abattoir (ie not unannounced).
Just over half of all slaughterhouses in the UK are members of third-party so-called ‘assurance schemes’ such as Red Tractor, Freedom Foods (RSPCA), Soil Association and the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
10.5 million a year1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
86 per cent gas kill. 14 per cent electrical stunning followed by sticking. Sick or injured piglets can be killed by ‘knocking’ (percussive stun).2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf
Find out more about pigs
Cattle (Adult Beef Cattle and Dairy Cows)
2.8 million a year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018 Including an estimated tens of thousands of pregnant dairy cows.3Singleton,GH & Dobson, H. 1995. A survey to establish why pregnant cows are culled. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7762126/
80 per cent captive bolt followed by sticking.2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf The remaining 20 per cent electrical stunning followed by sticking, or electrical stun-kill.
Find out more about cattle
Around 95,000 newborn male calves per year.4Levitt, T., 2018, ‘Dairy’s Dirty Secret: It’s Still Cheaper to Kill Male Calves Than To Rear Them’. The Guardian, 26 March. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/26/dairy-dirty-secret-its-still-cheaper-to-kill-male-calves-than-to-rear-them [Accessed 27 March 2020].
89 per cent captive bolt followed by sticking.2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf 11 per cent unspecified – some of these will be free-bullet (shotgun), or else electrical stunning.
Find out more about dairy cows
800,000 spent hens a year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
92 per cent are gassed. 6.4 percent are halal (stun method) using an electric bath and 1.4 per cent are halal non-stun.2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf
Find out more about egg-laying hens
Around 40 million chicks a year.5Clarke P.2020. No alternatives to culling day old male chicks… yet. Available at: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/poultry/layers/no-alternatives-to-culling-day-old-male-chicks-yet?name=no-alternatives-to-culling-day-old-male-chicks-yet&category_name=livestock%2Fpoultry%2Flayers [Accessed 13 May 2020]
100 per cent are gassed. Maceration is still permitted but no longer used in the UK.
Find out more about chicks
Broiler (meat) chickens
1.1 billion broiler chickens per year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
70 per cent are gassed to death. The remaining 20 per cent are electrically stunned followed by sticking. 10 per cent are non-stun halal before sticking (throat cutting).2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf
Find out more about broiler chickens
14.5 million a year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
The majority are gassed and the rest are electrically stunned (electric bath) before sticking (neck cutting). In certain circumstances they can be killed by cervical (neck) dislocation.
Find out more about ducks and geese
15 million a year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
The majority are gassed and the rest are electrically stunned followed by sticking (neck cutting). Manual cervical (neck) dislocation is permissible to kill turkeys up to 5kg.6Gov.uk, 2015. Knacker’s yards and farms: restraining, stunning, killing animals. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/knackers-yards-and-farms-restraining-stunning-killing-animals
Find out more about turkeys
14.9 million a year.1Defra. 2019a. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2018
Most are electrically stunned, followed by sticking. The other main method is captive bolt. 75% of sheep are killed by a halal method.
25 per cent of all sheep are killed by a cut to the throat without stunning – almost all of these being halal.2Defra, 2019b. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf
Find out more about sheep and lambs
Number unknown. Thought to be small-scale in the UK but hundreds of millions are slaughtered in the EU.
Commercially slaughtered rabbits are usually electrically stunned before sticking.
Culling methods include burning the hive, drowning the bees in soapy water, suffocation in a plastic bag or gassing to death with carbon dioxide.
Find out more about honey bees
Estimated hundreds of thousands worldwide.
Reindeer are rounded up in the wild in Scandinavia, Russia and Canada. They will be then killed in slaughterhouses via captive bolt followed by sticking.
When reindeer are rounded up for slaughter they panic and get their antlers or limbs caught in equipment, or between the transportation trucks, leading to injuries such as broken limbs. Evidence of neglect and starvation prior to slaughter and illegal slaughter methods were also uncovered.8WWF. 2017. Mass poaching of wild reindeer uncovered in Russia. Available at: https://wwf.panda.org/?298452/Mass%252Dpoaching%252Dof%252Dwild%252Dreindeer%252Duncovered%252Din%
Find out more about reindeer
Estimated at least tens of thousands per year worldwide.
Percussive stunning with a blunt object such as a rock followed by pithing or captive bolt or bullet to the head.
Marine turtles are difficult to render unconscious and kill because they can tolerate low levels of oxygen. Therefore they can feel pain and distress for a long period even after having their head cut off or losing a lot of blood. A turtle’s brain is small and located deep within the skull, so a blow to the head is not usually effective and only recommended when no other method is available.9RSPCA. 2020. Can turtles and dugongs be killed humanely using traditional hunting methods?. Available at: https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/can-turtles-and-dugongs-be-killed-humanely-using-traditional-hunting-methods/
Find out more about turtles
Estimated millions a year.
Captive bolt or electric stun followed by captive bolt. Crocodiles are often stunned using a car battery, stabbed with a blade through the top of their skull, inflated with air and sliced head to tail to remove the skin.
It is very difficult to kill a crocodile with a captive bolt as they have two layers of protective bone around their brain.10O’Connell, S., 2006. Crocodile farms: is it cruel to keep these wild creatures captive?. 5 October. The Independent. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/crocodile-farms-is-it-cruel-to-keep-these-wild-creatures-captive-418794.html [Accessed 11 June 2020]. Rarely, slaughterers are skilled and knowledgeable which leads to crocodiles with brain damage which causes a long painful death.
Find out more about crocodiles
1.6 million a year in the wild (figure for 2018).11Berlin, J., 2019. ‘Australia’s Beloved Kangaroos are now Controversial Pests’. National Geographic February. Available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/02/australia-kangaroo-beloved-symbol-becomes-pest/ [Accessed 22 December 2020].
Kangaroos are shot and killed in the wild in Australia. It is impossible to monitor the killing in the outback at night. Tens of thousands are mis-shot. Joeys in the pouch of shot mothers are either decapitated if very young or killed with a blow to the head. Dependent ‘at foot’ joeys often escape, but die of exposure, starvation or are predated upon.
Find out more about kangaroos
Most ostriches are killed in abattoirs by head-only electrical stunning, followed by bleeding, which requires at least four workers to hold the bird down. The other suggested slaughter technique is to kill the birds in a field with a captive bolt pistol followed by pithing, a metal rod inserted into the nostril to scramble the brain, and bleeding.12Humane Slaughter Association, 2011. Slaughter and Killing of Minority Farmed Species. Available at https://www.hsa.org.uk/downloads/technical-notes/TN25-minority-farmed-species-slaughter.pdf [Accessed 20 July 2020].
Ostriches are naturally flighty animals and it takes a minimum of four stock people to restrain an ostrich for slaughter.
Find out more about ostriches
Sticking is when an animal’s neck is cut, using a very sharp knife, to sever the major blood vessels in their neck or chest that supply the brain, ensuring rapid blood loss and therefore death. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘bleeding out’ or being ‘bled’.
This is where after stunning the animal is shackled by a hind leg and hoisted above the ground so that they are hanging upside down. The slaughterperson or a machine will then cut the animal’s throat to bleed him or her to death.
This is where an animal is shackled by their legs and hung upside down whilst being fully conscious, causing immense distress and pain
The most common slaughter technique for many intensively farmed animals is gassing. This is usually because it is the cheapest and quickest way to kill many animals at once. Although it has often been thought of as causing less suffering than other visibly more brutal methods, this is not true, and gassing methods can cause horrendous suffering to animals in their last moments.
Which animals is it used on?
Electrical stunning, or electric stun-kill, where the animal is stunned and killed at the same time, is still a most common slaughter method for most farmed animals. Electrical stunning and killing is done in different ways depending on the animal.
Which animals is it used on?
- Chickens (Broiler)
This is less commonly used than gassing as it involves live shackling where live birds are hung upside down with their legs in metal shackles and moved along a conveyor belt towards an electrified water bath. When the bird’s head touches the water, an electrical circuit between the water bath and shackle stuns the birds before they move along the line to a mechanical neck cutter that severs the major blood vessels in their necks. Slaughterhouses can kill up to 10,000 birds an hour using this method.
A lower voltage electric bath is also used as halal method which allows for stunning.
Due to this high throughput and the number of birds being ‘processed’, there is a high chance of inefficient stunning. Some birds, who lift their heads away from the water baths, miss being stunned entirely and have their throats cut while still fully conscious. The neck cutter is also fallible, as some birds have been found to receive only single cuts while others are missed entirely. In these instances, birds may be fully or partially conscious when they enter the scalding tanks to loosen their feathers and are essentially boiled alive.
Live shackling of birds causes intense pain, and hanging birds by their legs is highly stressful for them.
Head-to-back stun killing (electric tongs)
Which animals is it used on?
- Cattle (Dairy and Beef)
Head-to-back stun-killing is where a device like a large pair of tongs with electrodes fixed to a handpiece is placed on either side of the animal’s head by a slaughter-person. A current simultaneously passes through their brain and the heart of the animal to induce cardiac arrest. They are then shackled, hoisted and bled by throat cutting.
This is the most common method of slaughter for sheep and goats, and sometimes used, although less commonly, to kill cattle and stun pigs before sticking (throat cutting).
Electrical stunning is not always effective – there are many variables that can and often do go wrong; the current can be too weak, the slaughterer does not apply the electrodes to the correct part of the head, or fails to hold them in position for the required length of time to make the stun properly effective. The result can be that the stun is short lived and the animal regains consciousness before his or her throat is cut. Even if this stun is effective, an electric stun only lasts for around 20-40 seconds, so stun to knife intervals must not exceed this time.
Even if the animal is successfully stunned, the moments leading up to the stunning and slaughter are often terrifying for the animal. They can hear the noises and smell the fear of other animals in the slaughterhouse, and they do all they can to try and escape.
Which animals is it used on?
- Cattle (Beef, Dairy and Calves)
A captive-bolt stunner is a gun which fires a retractable metal bolt against the animal’s head and in many cases into the animal’s brain, which should render them immediately unconscious. The animal will then collapse but may continue to thrash their limbs and bleed from the head and the nose.
Once unconscious the animal will need to be immediately slaughtered before regaining consciousness. This will usually be done via ‘sticking’, where the animal’s throat is cut and it is allowed to ‘bleed out’ (bleed to death).
There are slightly different processes for captive bolt stunning depending on the animal.
There is a lot of room for error in the captive bolt method.
Head restraints systems for cattle can cause great distress and if used ineffectively can result in an inefficient stun.
Both cattle and goats’ skulls are hard to penetrate and if the stun is ineffective then they can regain consciousness hanging by their leg on the production line, tragically aware of everything around them but unable to move.
Each year it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of cattle are not correctly stunned and will have to be shot again or be knifed whilst conscious.5Smith, R. Sentenced to Death. A Viva! Report on the slaughter of farmed animals in the UK.
Which animals is it used on?
The free bullet method is where a bullet from a shotgun, as opposed to a captive-bolt, is fired at point blank range into the brain of the animal. The bullet is designed to expand on impact to cause instant death. Their bodies are then shackled by the hind legs, they are hauled up and their throats are cut and they are bled. This is the only method used to kill horses and is also used by farmers to shoot surplus male dairy calves by a farm worker or a hired slaughter-person.
Due to horses’ high sensitivity, social nature and flightiness, there are special procedures for slaughtering them in the UK. They are not supposed to be killed within sight of any other horse or in a room that contains the remains of horses or other animals. This whole process is to avoid triggering a natural fear response to their impending death.6Gov.uk, 2019. Red meat slaughterhouses: restraining, stunning, killing animals. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/red-meat-slaughterhouses-restraining-stunning-killing-animals#killing-horses As with the captive bolt, the animal’s head must be restrained effectively to ensure an effective shot, leaving high potential for error and misfiring.
Cervical (neck) dislocation
Which animals is it used on?
Neck dislocation is a method that can be used to kill poultry up to 5kg. It is most usually used on large farms to kill diseased on injured birds, or on small holdings that kill less than 10,000 birds a year when no other methods are available. Farmers are allowed to kill up to 70 birds a day using this method.7Gov.uk, 2015. Slaughtering poultry, rabbits and hares on farms for small-scale suppliers. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/slaughtering-poultry-rabbits-and-hares-on-farms-for-small-scale-suppliers
Neck dislocation kills the bird by a combination of rupturing the spinal cord, which stops breathing, and by disrupting the blood flow to the brain by rupturing the blood vessels in the neck. It can be done manually – by the hands of a stockperson, or using a special instrument designed to crush the bird’s windpipe.
Research has found that neck dislocation does not consistently concuss the brain and it is unlikely to cause immediate unconsciousness.8Hsa.org.uk. 2020. Neck Dislocation. Available at: https://www.hsa.org.uk/neck-dislocation/neck-dislocation#:~:text=Neck%20dislocation%20kills%20the%20bird,a%20method%20of%20killing%20poultry
Neck dislocation without prior stunning is therefore not recommended for the routine slaughter of poultry. Weight restrictions for killing birds using this method are ignored, even by ‘high welfare’ farms, as exposed in Viva!’s 2019 investigation into turkey farm, Gravel Farm.
Which animals is it used on:
Maceration, which involves chicks being ground up by a large fast-moving grinder, was used in the past in the UK, and is still used in much of the world, including the U.S and Australia, where it is considered the ‘more humane’ option. Maceration is still permitted in the UK although the industry claims it is no longer used.
It is legal to kill young piglets by a blow to the head in certain situations such as sickness or injury. Farm workers are allowed to use a blunt instrument to deliver a blow to the back of the head, or hold the piglet by the back legs and slam him or her hard against a concrete floor or wall.
If there is any doubt that the animal has not been killed effectively, the blow should be immediately repeated. This kind of killing is only allowed to be carried out on piglets weighing up to 5kg.
Once they are older and heavier than 5kg, the blow is unlikely to kill them immediately, and they may instead endure an agonising and drawn out death. Viva! Investigations have exposed piglets over the legal minimum weight having their heads slammed against concrete and killed illegally.
Which animals is it used on?
Animals slaughtered using this method cannot be used for human consumption.
Pithing is the insertion of a wire or rod through a hole in the head, usually made by a captive bolt which destroys the lower part of the brain and spinal cord.5Smith, R. Sentenced to Death. A Viva! Report on the slaughter of farmed animals in the UK. This mechanical damage to the brain ensures rapid death. In the past, this was practiced on cattle, sheep and goats.
It has been illegal to carry out on animals destined for consumption since 2001 due to fears it could facilitate diseases such as BSE. It can still be carried out on injured animals or those culled for disease control.
The slaughter of marine animals is often not considered, yet far more marine animals endure agonising deaths than any other farmed animal on the planet.
Billions of fish per year
Fish are stunned and slaughtered in a variety of ways depending on the species and whether they’re farmed or caught.
The Humane Slaughter Association says that a fish should only be out of the water for a maximum of 15 seconds before stunning.
Often fish are not killed within 15 seconds of being taken out of the water which means they are left to die a slow, painful and distressing death as they’re starved of oxygen. Little or no consideration is given to the welfare of fish at their time of death, even though we know fish experience fear and feel pain.
There is very little legal protection for fish at the time of slaughter. Under EU legislation, fish are included in the general minimum standards for farm animal slaughter but these give no no detail on permissible killing methods.1Fishcount.org.uk. 2020. Slaughter of farmed fish. Available at: http://fishcount.org.uk/farmed-fish-welfare/farmed-fish-slaughter
RSPCA Freedom Foods and Soil Association assurance schemes have committed to ‘humane slaughter’ practices but the methods within these are not defined in the same way as they are for land animals in slaughterhouses.
In the UK, lobsters are either boiled alive, frozen to death or if being killed commercially they are stunned in electric baths before being boiled. They can also be subjected to a live cutting method that severs major nerve centres without pre-stunning since there are no real rules on the humane slaughter of lobsters in the UK.4Saner, E., 2018. ‘Is it wrong to boil lobsters alive?’ The Guardian. 11 February. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/11/is-it-wrong-to-boil-lobsters-alive [Accessed 20 May 2020].
As anyone can buy and kill lobsters, no matter how experienced they are, the chances of getting this cutting process wrong are high, and the consequences are unimaginable suffering for the lobster who is hacked into, but not dead.
Some regions such as Switzerland and New Zealand have banned the practice of boiling lobsters alive without pre-stunning, due to the cruelty.4Saner, E., 2018. ‘Is it wrong to boil lobsters alive?’ The Guardian. 11 February. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/11/is-it-wrong-to-boil-lobsters-alive [Accessed 20 May 2020]. This is not the case in the UK.
Prawns and shrimps
On prawn and shrimp farms, nets are used to haul thousands of the animals out of the water. Crammed so closely together, many prawns suffocate to death in the process. Those that survive are usually tumbled into chilled boxes to keep them fresh and alive. Many will be sold alive and killed by consumers however they choose.
One recommended way of killing shrimp and prawns is said to put them into ‘chill-kill tanks’, full of ice and water and keep them in there for 20 minutes at which point they are rendered insensible.5Tidwell, J., Coyle, S., 2011. ‘Post-Harvest Handling of Freshwater Prawns.’ Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, May. Available at https://freshwater-aquaculture.extension.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Post-harvest_handling_of_freshwater_prawns.pdf [Accessed 8 September 2020] Workers will then cut through the centreline of the head and tail, while they are still alive.
Since the slaughter of prawns is completely unregulated, there is no way of knowing how a prawn eaten in the UK has been killed.
Some of them will have been left in ice too long and will have been frozen to death, others will be left to suffocate and yet more will be cut into without having been chilled at all, fully conscious.
There are two types of religious slaughter in the UK – halal, used to kill animals for Muslim consumption, and the shechita method for Jewish consumption.
In the UK the law generally states that all animals must be stunned before slaughter. However, exemption is given for religious slaughter such as halal and shechita which demands that the animal be alive, and in some cases, conscious when they are killed.
It is estimated that hundreds of millions of animals are killed by religious slaughter methods every year in the UK and that the industry is worth over £2 billion.1Meikle, J. 2014. What exactly does the halal method of animal slaughter involve? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/08/what-does-halal-method-animal-slaughter-involve?fbclid=IwAR1VR6B3tAI3Mw_gMDXmRAxZlEpxm4apYPIm8MHhobKOkR_WK9kCrC1RmsM
The Food Standards Authority (FSA) estimates that 94 million animals were slaughtered without pre-stunning in 2018. This includes over 90 million meat chickens (9.7%), 3.1 million sheep (25%) and 22,000 cattle (1.1%).2RSPCA.org.uk. 2020. Slaughter without pre-stunning. Available at: https://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/slaughter#:~:text=Religious%20slaughter,Kosher)%20are%20non%2Dstunned
Religious slaughter must still take place in slaughterhouses and these slaughterhouses must be approved for religious slaughter.
What is halal slaughter?
The rules of halal slaughter – Dhabihah- are based on Islamic law. For meat to be considered Halal (permitted), it must come from an animal that is alive and healthy at the time of slaughter.
The animal’s throat must be cut by a sharp knife severing the carotid artery, jugular vein and windpipe in a single swipe. A Muslim has to perform the slaughter in the appropriate ritual manner and prayer must be said whilst the slaughter is carried out. Blood must be drained out of the carcass.
However, due to the scale and the sheer number of animals being slaughtered under Halal practices, it is not cost efficient for slaughter to be done manually, by a slaughterperson, in most cases.
The most common practice found in a majority of the larger abattoirs is mechanical, machine slaughter. This is process is carried out by mechanical rotating blades with no Muslim slaughterman present either to perform the slaughter, or to recite the ‘Tasmiyah’ on each individual slaughter. Instead, a prerecorded prayer may be played in the slaughterhouse or the blades may be blessed each morning before the machinery is turned on.3Halal MC. 2020. Issues of Mechanical Slaughter and Stunning. Available at: https://halalhmc.org/resources/issues-of-mechanical-slaughter-and-stunning/
Since the animal must be alive, but not necessarily conscious, halal slaughter consists of both stun and non-stun methods. There is significant opposition within the Muslim community to stun methods as many argue this causes more suffering to the animal and may cause the body of the animal to be wasted, as if they are killed during the stun it would render them unfit for Muslim consumption.
Halal stun slaughter
In the UK, 58 per cent of Halal meat comes from animals which have been stunned before slaughter and certified Halal.2RSPCA.org.uk. 2020. Slaughter without pre-stunning. Available at: https://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/slaughter#:~:text=Religious%20slaughter,Kosher)%20are%20non%2Dstunned Halal stun slaughter methods vary between animals.
Which animals is it used on?
Which animals is it used on?
- Broiler chickens
Sheep are the species with the largest proportion of animals slaughtered by a non-stun method in the UK – 25 per cent of all sheep in the UK are killed by a non-stun method with almost all of this being Halal.
Around 8 per cent of goats are killed using the halal non-stun method, 3 per cent of all calves and around 0.6% of adult cattle.
Close to 10 per cent of broiler (meat) chickens are killed using non-stun methods (Defra, 2019).
As described above, this means that the sheep’s throat is slit while they are hanging upside down on a production line fully conscious. This process has become increasingly mechanised, and in commercial slaughter is carried out by mechanical rotating blades sometimes with a pre-recorded prayer being said in the slaughterhouse whilst the slaughter takes place.
Cattle killed with no pre-cut stunning must be restrained, have their throat cut immediately with a very sharp, clean knife that must be twice the width of the neck. It must be a fast and aggressive cut across the throat to cut the jugular and major blood vessels to bring about immediate and massive blood loss. Once the cow is unconscious, they are then shackled and hung upside down by a back leg to allow the blood to drain away faster.5Europarl. 2012. Religious slaughter of animals in the EU. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2012/120375/LDM_BRI(2012)120375_REV2_EN.pdf
Non-stun slaughter can lead to prolonged suffering and stress for the animal. The slaughter process is not always carried out correctly due to a wide range of factors such as equipment failure, human error, or poorly trained workers. If the cut is not effective, this could lead to having to repeatedly hack away at an animal’s neck before they are killed.
Non-stunned animals can be conscious after their neck has been cut for up to two minutes for cattle, 20 seconds for sheep and 2.5 minutes for poultry, according to the European Food Safety Authority. An agonising death lasting minutes filled with terror, fear and pain.5Europarl. 2012. Religious slaughter of animals in the EU. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2012/120375/LDM_BRI(2012)120375_REV2_EN.pdf
What is Shechita (Kosher) slaughter?
Shechita is the Jewish religious method of animal slaughter for food. It is the only method permissible Jewish law and tradition and cannot involve any pre-slaughter stunning at all. This is practiced because it is considered by the Jewish faith to be the most humane method of slaughter. Stunning methods are said to cause pain and distress and are therefore prohibited by Jewish law. However, these laws were written a very long time ago.
This specific type of slaughter, known as Shechita, is performed using a ‘chalaf’ – a surgically sharp knife. The slaughter is carried out on individual animals by hand by a licensed and trained Jewish professional called a Shochet who has special training in animal anatomy and the laws of shechita. Schochets are supposed to be examined annually by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim.
Jews argue that this method, which uses a knife twice the width of the animal’s neck, is sufficient to guarantee a quick death because of the speed and expertise used (Meikle, 2014).
Which animals are killed using the shechita method?
A small percentage of animals in the UK are killed via the Shechita method for Jewish consumption4Defra. 2019. Results of the 2018 FSA Survey into Slaughter Methods in England and Wales. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778588/slaughter-method-survey-2018.pdf including:
- Around 1 per cent of cattle and 0.5% of calves
- Less than 0.5% of sheep
- 1% of turkeys (147,000 per year)
- 0.5% of broiler chickens
- 0.5% of other poultry – ducks, geese ( estimated around 300,000 per year)
As with non-stun halal, shechita slaughter can cause animals to suffer an agonising death of up to several minutes after their throat has been cut.
It is said that properly performed Shechita should result in cattle collapsing within 10 to 15 seconds. Observation shows in 30% of cases however, that animals remain conscious for more than 30 seconds.5Europarl. 2012. Religious slaughter of animals in the EU. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2012/120375/LDM_BRI(2012)120375_REV2_EN.pdf
Removal of Blood
Today, it is claimed that blood is removed from an animal for Jewish and Muslim consumption. This is not so, as it is impossible to drain blood from the capillaries and if anyone truly did not want to eat blood, they would have to stop eating meat. To try to rid of blood, some Jewish people may burn the flesh over a flame or soak and salt it, however, this does not work – for although the blood is no longer liquid, it remains in a solidified form.
The ridding of blood is an important issue. It is a reason why Jewish and some Muslim slaughter involves cutting the throat of a living, fully conscious animal. It is falsely asserted by some Jews and Muslims that by stunning or by killing the animal before its throat is cut that less blood will be lost. Scientific studies have shown this to be untrue.
Stunning does not limit the amount of blood drained from the animal and that this has easily been proved by analysing the amount of haemoglobin residue in meat. Jewish-slaughtered meat may be lighter in colour than pre-stunned meat, but this is due to the fact that in Jewish slaughter the animal gasps for breath causing a greater amount of oxyhaemoglobin in the blood and hence the flesh.
The Food Research Institute state that killing an animal before it is bled out, eg by high voltage electrical stunning, does not effect the amount of blood lost from the carcass.
The debate around religious slaughter
There has been ongoing debate about allowing non-stun religious slaughter to take place in the UK due to animal welfare concerns. Some European countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have banned non-stun religious slaughter on animal welfare grounds.
There has also be considerable controversy over recent decades relating to non-stun kosher and halal meat being sold unlabelled in supermarkets to non-Muslim and non-Jewish customers. In 2017 it was reported that up to 90,000 animals killed by the non-stun Shechita method may have been sold to non-Jewish customers. The meat had been rejected as ‘unfit for religious consumption’ but there remains no requirement for supermarkets to inform customers what slaughter method was used.7Dalton, J. 2019. Shoppers unknowingly buying no-stun religious meat in supermarkets. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/meat-animals-no-stun-halal-meat-supermarkets-religion-kosher-food-ban-standards-agency-a8786541.html
Please be aware, the following section contains graphic images some users may find distressing.
A pig screams in a gas chamber | Credit: Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV), Farm Transparency Project
A pig being stunned with electric tongs by a slaughterhouse worker | Credit: Viva!
A slaughterhouse worker sticking a pig | Credit: Viva!
Credit: Silvia Hauptmann
A row of shackled pigs bleeding out after they have been slaughtered | Credit: Viva!
Credit: Silvia Hauptmann
Credit: Jonas Eriksson
A pig being scolded in a tank of boiling water to remove hairs | Credit: Viva!
Credit: Manuel Velasco
A slaughterhouse worker uses a hanging pig carcass as a swing | Credit: Viva!
A slaughterhouse worker wears the top of a pigs head like a hat | Credit: Viva!
Credit: Andi Grieger
Credit: Andi Grieger
Turkeys in live transit | Credit: Valmedia
Ducks in a slaughterhouse | Credit: Byjeng
Sheep & Lambs
A lamb being electrically stunned | Credit: Viva!
Shackled lamb bleeding out after slaughter | Credit: Viva!
Row of shackled sheep bleeding out after being slaughtered | Credit: Viva!
Credit: Farm Transparency Project