100,000 signatures so where now?

The BVA sponsored e-petition against non-stun slaughter has reached the 100,000 threshold that triggers a possible House of Commons debate on the subject. Here is a report published in the Huffington Post:

Petition To Ban Religious Animal Slaughter Reaches 100,000

So where do we go from here?

Government is not mindful of introducing a ban on non-stun slaughter. Frankly, it does not have evidence to support such a move. It cannot do so on religious grounds because non-stun-slaughter is not really a religious and in the absence of science it would be treading a dangerous path. The religious link arises because Jews codified, wrote down, a regional practice hitherto passed down by word of mouth in the first century CE and Muslims codified their understanding in the seventh century. Early Christians will have followed the Jewish code.

An interesting thought is that we would not be having this debate if it were merely a secular matter. Put another way if this were merely a secular issue the shape of the debate would be different for sure. Both sides of the argument would have to use science. They would have to collect data and they would be required at least to listen to their opponents. They would have to listen to challenges and mount an informed defence of their respective positions.

Before going into the politics it is necessary to reprise the biology that appears to have eluded veterinary surgeons and isn’t put to parliamentarians who do not have a life science background.

Importantly, we forget that non-stun slaughter would have been the norm in Britain, at least for small animals, until just after the second world war. My father, actually a Methodist, must have trained to do so. His father was a farmer who would have killed his own livestock to take to market, as would the many other small farmers. Yes, it was not very long ago that even the secular world accepted what it know calls religious slaughter without question.

From what I can make out it would have been public health concerns that would have informed the decision to stop on-farm slaughter for sale for human consumption. How do you supervise and regulate meat inspection on thousands of small farms?

Animal welfare is seriously compromised when stock is taken to slaughterhouses for killing. Stunning facilitates faster line speeds in order to keep costs down. Importantly it also facilitates lesser trained operators and the use of mechanical killing. Jewish shochet undertake a seven years training. Kosher rules extend to the health and welfare of the operator. They are extensive. Muslim rules are much less so. Secular training is minimal.

Merely grasping some of these issues would allow a much more informed debate than the one we are having. The opposing side of the argument would have to collect data and they would not be able to hide behind the screen of “religion” in order to mask their  lack of knowledge.

Jewish and Muslim practices govern the entire process from farm to fork. Their rules require good animal husbandry and high welfare. After slaughter good hygiene is important. Jewsish and Muslim rules demand good practice just like Secular rules.

Here is the problem that veterinary surgeons and parliamentarians need to address. Why would Jews and Muslims go to so much trouble to loving care for their animals and take trouble to prepare them for the table with attention to detail only consciously to make their animals’ lives hell at slaughter? Well of course they do not. If they could improve current practice they probably would.

The point is that shechita. the Jewish term, and dhabiha or zabihah, the Muslim word, are designed to minimise suffering. When the major blood vessels supplying the brain are severed there is a catastrophic drop in blood pressure that causes rapid unconsciousness. Yes, the cut triggers pain receptors but there is a delay before the conscious brain registers the pain. The next time you touch your hot iron you will not feel the pain instantly – even though you are expecting it. There is a delay.

The process involved are similar to fainting, which comes about because of a sudden drop in blood pressure to the brain. If we have never fainted many of us will have experienced a near faint, when we experience light-headedness. We go woozy.

Good shechita and dhabiha practice requires the operator not to show the animal the knife. Animals are very unlikely to have time register that something is wrong before unconsciousness intervenes.

This is basic physiology. It’s nature’s design.

Non-stun slaughter when performed correctly is not innately inhumane. Poor welfare in lairage compromises the kill whether the animal is stunned or not. In both scenarios animals that are not relaxed but are anxious and agitated do not present as good subjects for stunning  or direct cutting. Stuns can fail and cuts may not be proficiently applied.

Slaughter with stunning is superior for sure. There is after all no blood.

Really?

Animals are still cut and bled out. Secular slaughter rituals are still messy.

There is no evidence to show that non-stun slaughter is inferior. Equally, politicians, parliamentarians, opinion formers, and both secular and religious community leaders need to appreciate that slaughter with stunning is anything but foolproof. Mis-stun rates across the EU have been said to range from 6% to 30%. In the USA an “acceptable” rate of mis-stunning is said to be 5%. That’s 1 in 20 animals that is required required to suffer in order that the other nineteen experience a slaughter that is not significantly superior.

To be honest I do not believe that in the EU the 30% mis-stun rate is currently valid. It is easy to quote and use this figure but it’s not a recent one. Concern for food animal welfare general has been and is changing. Better welfare and stock management in slaughterhouses must be reducing stress and this will transfer to the point of kill. The more relaxed the animal the lesser the risk of a mis-stun.

What, then, is the rate of mis-stuns?

The reality is that no one has been collecting the information systematically – and certainly not the official vets who are required to keep an eye on welfare in slaughterhouses. No one actually knows how often animals for slaughter are mis-stunned.

Nor, and significantly, no one is prepared to describe the welfare issues associated with mis-stunning. It is not difficult to picture an anxious bovine not standing still and the stun gun operator missing the small target area on the head. Nor is it difficult to imagine a steer who has been mis-stunned now having one hell of a headache and now being very agitated. Re-stunning does not get easier. It gets harder.

So back to the politics.

When you probe people on Twitter you realise that much of their animosity towards non-stun slaughter is either because they have a “go vegetarian” agenda or a strong religious belief that giving thanks to our maker and asking forgiveness for taking life at the time of slaughter is evil. (I cannot think of a better word and some Christians really do believe that Allah is the devil.) Theirs is not primarily a welfare concern at all.

The bigger problem is that there is te unshaken belief that stunning is a clinical procedure. There is a perverse irony here. Religious slaughter was originally taught as a ritual or drill because ordinary people would not really have understood the science. They were illiterate and very little was written down. Their prophets merely knew what worked at what didn’t.

Today, the science of stunning is not taught. What videos of stun-slaughter are easily accessed on the Internet are heavily pruned and sanitised. By contrast non-slaughter cannot be shown with the bloody cut. Videos cannot be sanitised. Our knowledge of stun-slaughter is learned by rote. It is an effective ritual.

Captive bolt stunning of cattle may produce instant unconsciousness but electrical stunning of sheep (and pigs)? If operators do not get it right first time for animals will suffer.

Back to the debate, veterinary surgeons want to ban non-stun slaughter. Defra and government, to their credit, at least recognise that this cannot be mandated. They  may fear a religious backlash, especially from Jews, but they simply do not have evidence to support the argument.

Some parliamentarians have adopted a different tack. They are proposing that meat should be labelled to show if the animal was stunned or not before slaughter. This sound simple but it isn’t.

Proper “kosher” meat will come from animals not stunned at slaughter but the halal market is less clear cut. Most halal meat on general sale is stunned before slaughter. I assume that any labelling requirement may required only non-stunned meat to be labelled – with a presumption of stunning for the remainder.

Sound simple.

The catch is that many Muslims are not wonderfully well informed. Many assume that all halal meat is derived from non-stun slaughter. Once they learn that this is not so surely the demand for non-stun meat must increase. Then where do we go?

It strikes me that this debate has no comfortable outcomes. Veterinary surgeons demand the banning of non-slaughter regardless and without evidence. Politicians want a compromise with a labelling solution that presumably may be counterproductive. If this the case the non-stun ban lobby will redouble their efforts. The Christians and Secular anti-Halal lobby will be emboldened.

The stun v non-stun debate is bound to harden. The energies exhausted in this debate may be the better directed at learning the science.

 

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Who says Jewish/Muslim slaughter practices are inhumane?

The experts on humane slaughter are actually the people at the National Secular Society. They apply some of the best science and impartial thinking in their methodology. They are open minded. The listen to all views. They listen, that us, until anything vaguely religious crops up. This is the point at which barriers are erected instantaneously.

These experts at the NSS are quick to accuse Jews and Muslims of living in the past. They accuse Jews and Muslims of ignoring science while themselves ignoring the history of their Secular stun “rituals”. Secularists assume with religious zeal that slaughter with stunning is superior.

How much of this science, however, is purely emotional? To what extent Secularists assume superior rituals because they don’t have to contemplate the thought of a man doing the actual deed. Their rituals distance man from the final act. Their rituals include measures to minimise the amount of blood actually seen by observers and the sight of the machine killing animal after animal – as if they were mere commodities. Secular slaughter rituals put distance between the man and the act of killing.

Why do Secularists stun their animals before slaughter? It was not always thus. Their religion is in fact relatively new yet they have lost touch with its genesis within a lifetime. In my early childhood, or not long before it, many farmers slaughtered and butchered their own animals to take to market in nearby towns. My father was so trained. I gather that he didn’t stun small animals. After WWII My father bought a small holding attached to a village shop. I guess the land was just sufficient to keep enough cows for a milkround. I barely remember the cows because he switched to keeping pigs for bacon. These were sent away for slaughter.

In my lifetime farmers killed their animals for their own consumption (not for sale). My father visited his brothers’ farms to kill the odd sheep or pig. Cousins say he didn’t stun and animals drifted or slipped away. This would be expected. A catastrophic drop in cerebral blood pressure causes rapid unconsciousness. If a very sharp knife is used animals don’t flinch, according to Dr Temple Grandin, a foremost expert on slaughterhouse welfare. Bleeding to death is not painful. On the contrary, as one Tweeter recently put it, “it’s rather poetic”. Humans reporting near death experiences invariably report a pleasant experience – despite the trauma of resuscitation, which can be violent enough to break ribs. This not an exact equivalent analogy but cardiac arrests cause a catastrophic loss of cerebral blood pressure and unconsciousness.

So why do we stun?

We stun because animals for human consumption are now slaughtered at abattoirs where meat inspection, a matter of public health and hygiene, can the better be supervised and regulated. Slaughterhouses compromise welfare big time. Stunning provides a number of advantages. It allows for higher line speeds and given that non-stun slaughter requires a highly skilled artisan it makes way for mechanised slaughter. Above all stunning helps to reduce the serious inhumanity of the whole process – especially in the final moments.

Slaughter without stunning requires a human to effect the deed. Few people can imagine doing this themselves. I guess most us would squirm at the thought of killing our own animals to eat in a survival situation. It’s abhorent. There is also a presumption of pain and distress because  of the sight of blood but what pain there may be will be transient and the animal will become lightheaded before becoming unconsciousness. Of much greater distress to animals will be the smell of death as they queue to be led to the stun pens.

I saw a video recently. It showed so-called humane slaughter. All I saw was the stun, an animal collapsing, presumed to be unconscious, and being unceremoniously tipped onto the slaughterhouse floor. He probably was unconscious but there is a remote possibility that it wasn’t. We just don’t know how animals suffer. There was no blood therefore the ritual is humane.

It that not the real issue here. Secular slaughter ritual “sort of” sanitises the slaughter process. We aren’t shown the actual slaughter. We rarely are. It’s more humane for the observer not to see the “bloody” part of the ritual.

And that’s the point. Secular slaughter ritual is humane because we never see the whole process. We can reasonably assume during a successful stun animals won’t know what hit them BUT not all stuns are successful first time AND that’s the point when the Secular ritual is far from humane. Now MPs may write this off as insignificant but I feel sure the affected animals would not agree. MPs may choose to believe that second stuns are applied immediately – but that assumes the now seriously stressed animal will know to stand still for the repeat process. BUT this is unseen. Therefore it’s humane. QED.

Of course veterinary surgeons are better informed but to what extent is their opinion based on the their emotions? How many veterinary students have made up their minds before they start training and does their training actually deal with this subject at length. Remember vets are motivated by the need save life and not willfully sacrifice it – except when it is necessary to reduce suffering as a result of illness or injury.

My letters to The Times and Matthew Syed

Dear Matthew

Below I have copied the letter I wrote to your The Times host on New Year’s Day (2015). I dropped you a private email as a matter of decency as you and your position on halal/kosher meat must be robustly challenged.

I notice that you engaged with Shimon Cohen (@scohen_shimon) and Simon Myerson (@SCynic1) on Twitter and for doing you must be applauded.

The problem is that non-stun slaughter, shechita and zabiha, the terms used by Jews and Muslims respectively, stands up as a humane method of slaughter on its own without theological religious tags. I recently discovered that my dad, a Christian, killed without stunning on his brothers’ farms. His father was a farmer who killed his own livestock to take to market.

It never dawned on me that this would have been so until I expressed my interest in this subject to an older cousin. He said, without prompting, “but that’s how your father would have done it and animals just slipped away”. Physiologically this must be so, at least for small animals, provided that it happens in an unstressed environment.

On-farm slaughter must have stopped in the nineteen fifties. From what I can make out transferring slaughter for consumption would have improved the public health imperative of supervised meat inspection. Industrial slaughter without stunning is probably unconscionable because animal welfare is seriously compromised by the whole experience – incidentally increasing the issue of mis-stunning and its unseen consequences.

I say “unseen consequences” because you cannot see a stonking headache. Nor are we ever shown the issues surrounding re-stunning. I refer to Neil Parish’s dismissing the issue in parliamentary debate in the letter below.

The bottom line is that slaughter without stunning in the proper environment is, as Shimon Cohen attests to, probably not significantly superior to slaughter with stunning but critically neither is it significantly inferior. In medical parlance we use the term “non-inferior” – statistically meaning not better but neither worse.

You won’t appreciate this but the techniques Jews call shechita and Muslims call zabiha (also spelt dhabiha) were probably proven practices that were common most certainly in that part of the world a good many years before they were codified, that’s written down, by Jews and Muslims in the first and seventh centuries. Before they were taught by rote – hence “ritual”. Our ancestors certainly will not have know germ theory but they would have known the consequences of getting it wrong. They were careful what they ate and how they prepared it.

I am sorry but your beliefs are not the “example of refreshinghly clear-headed liberalism” you were praised for on Twitter.

Bruce Brown

@theoldbrewer

 

 

Dear Sir/Madam

There is one sentence in Matthew Syed’s “The slippery slope from halal meat to FGM”, Jan1st, that is correct – namely “Let us decide the halal meat issue on the basis of evidence and reason.”

The halal meat debate does not predispose to reason. It cannot. On Twitter yesterday a rational secularist made it clear that people with religion are not credible witnesses. This means that Jewish experts, who seemingly do know their stuff, may come to the table but their evidence does not count.

Mr Syed missed another key issue, which today’s veterinarians won’t admit, and that is to kill to eat is counterintuitive to a profession dedicated to save life and not to take it. Let’s face it I, like very many others, would not take easily to putting a knife to a sheep’s throat. The consequences of doing so are pretty graphic. Contrast that with mechanical slaughter, which allows man to distance himself from the act. Whenever we see pictures of Secular slaughter we are usually only shown the stun. There is no blood therefore the ritual is humane. We rarely see the rough handling following stunning.

The fact is that stunning is far from a foolproof procedure. Mis-stuns are not as rare as the British Veterinary Association broadcast loudly earlier this year, misusing Defra data in the process. We do not know whan the stun failure rate is. It’s probably better than a 6% to 30% range often quoted. Let’s run with something in the order of 1%, or one in one hundred animals, quite possibly already stressed before the mis-stun, suffering badly.

Neil Parish MP believes mis-stunning not significant because restunning is immediate. Highly unlikely but that’s what he’s telling parliamentarians.

The problem for Secular authorities is that secular and Christian butchers, like my late father, who practised without stunning are now few and far between. Farmers no longer slaughter their meat. Were they to do so they may well favour non-stun practice, when conditions allow. These conditions are not found in large industrial facilities.

Very few people in this debate can say they are truly objective. Even I have a potential conflict of interest. Non-stun may not be as inhumane as graphic pictures suggest.

Yours faithfully

Bruce Brown