By Mara Miele
With kosher and halal food an increasingly common feature of the British high street, a top vet has called for reform of their slaughter practices, calling them inhumane.
These alternative methods of animal slaughter rightly provoke a heated debate about the welfare of farm animals and the ethics of killing them. But is there a humane way of killing animals at all and, if instituted, what would the effects of a ban be in the UK?
Research has indicated that, from an animal welfare perspective, the most adverse conditions at the time of killing (pain and stress) can be avoided with the stunning of animals prior to their throats being cut. This requires the correct use of restraining methods and good handling of the animals. Most animal welfare scientists seem to agree that the risk of animal suffering is higher in slaughter without stunning.
But there are animal welfare scientists who argue the opposite. Temple Grandin, one of the most eminent animal welfare scientists, asserts that the welfare risks in kosher slaughter (which doesn’t allow stunning) can also be reduced with correct restraining and handling methods.
Rules and regulations The recent EU regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing defines the conditions for “humane killing” for food production. It states that all animals should be made unconscious via stunning before the cut of the throat – with an exemption made for religious slaughter. Currently, the human right of practising religion takes priority over the welfare of animals.
While the stunning of animals before slaughter is incompatible with shechita (the methods approved by Jewish religious authorities), halal slaughter can be performed after the stunning of animals, as long as the stunning is reversible. This is an important distinction because in the UK the demand for halal meat is much bigger than the demand for kosher meat and nearly 80% of all halal certified meat comes from animals that have been stunned prior the cut of the throat.
Ways around a ban A ban on religious slaughter without stunning in the UK would only mean more animals will be killed without stunning in other countries and imported to the UK. From an animal welfare perspective this option can hardly be seen as an improvement. There are other options that could be explored domestically, such as the imposition of post-cut stunning, or, better, the development of techniques of stunning that are compatible with the Jewish religion.
Stunning methods have their disadvantages, a number of issues can occur in the process, including possible miss-stuns, which can be very painful. There is a need for research to develop alternative, ideally non-invasive, stunning methods. Magnetic stunning is one option. Based on passing a large current through a copper coil by which an intense magnetic field is generated, the coil is placed close to the head of an animal to knock them out.
If fully developed, it is a potential technique for stunning animals that could be accepted both in halal and schechita slaughter and could be used in future.
Bridging the gap Another issue is bridging the gap between animal welfare advocates and religious groups. This is the main area where an effort is needed. The recent EU-funded Dialrel project was dedicated to establishing a dialogue between religious minorities in Europe and scientific authorities in animal welfare. After nearly four years of research and exchange, they listed the best practices for different species that would minimise the stress and pain of animals at time of killing.
These recommendations propose to focus on the most risky aspects of religious slaughter, either performed without stunning or with pre/post-cut stunning. At the end of the project this document was endorsed by a significant number of both Muslim and Jewish religious groups across the continent. It could represent a starting point for further developments in terms of new technologies and better communication between those involved in this debate.
More pressing issues? But this call for a ban on religious slaughter raises questions about relevance and the proportion of attention it’s getting. Is religious slaughter without stunning the most pressing animal welfare issue in the UK? How does it compare with the prolonged suffering of common conditions such as lameness and mastitis in dairy cows, feather pecking in laying hens and tail biting in pigs?
Given the number of animals involved it’s hard to consider religious slaughter as the main animal welfare problem the UK faces. Indeed it is quite remarkable the level of attention that this phenomenon is attracting and, in contrast, the silence surrounding the number of animals in all year round indoor confined systems for food production. While this constantly grows around the world and is expected to more than double between now and 2050, the attention given to religious slaughter without stunning seems somehow out of proportion.