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:
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.
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.
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.