The covert film by Animal Aid of slaughter at the Bowood halal abattoir near Thirsk shows revolting animal cruelty.
Slaughtermen are seen hacking and sawing at the necks of fully conscious sheep, throwing them around, kicking and punching them prior to slaughter; and all this while surrounded by the smell and sight of death in the form of dead sheep and chickens hanging from nearby meat-hooks.
Animal Aid deserves enormous credit for making these disgusting scenes public. Any civilised person, of whatever religion or none, will be horrified to see the film.
It raises the explosive question of whether halal or kosher slaughter should be banned by law. UKIP, in an apparent reversal of its previous policy, has already announced that it will support a ban on all slaughter in which the animal is not first stunned. It is a policy that may well prove popular. Like most UKIP policies I rather doubt that it has been carefully thought out.
Kosher and halal slaughter share several characteristics. Both Judaism and Islam stress that slaughter should be carried out with respect and concern towards the animal. The animal to be killed must be healthy and uninjured. Animals awaiting slaughter should not be permitted to see those that have already been killed. Both religions stress that the knife used to cut the throat should be as sharp and free from imperfections as possible and that the animal should be killed by a single cut to the throat. A Jewish shochet must be trained for several years before he is authorised to perform shechita. Like any other slaughterman he must also be licensed by the secular authorities.
As far as they go, anyone willing to eat meat ought to be happy to endorse these principles. The emphasis placed by both religions on the need to avoid needless cruelty and to treat animals with respect is admirable.
The problem arises because Islamic slaughter sometimes, and Jewish slaughter always, requires the animal to be slaughtered without first stunning it. In “conventional” slaughter pre-stunning, normally using a captive bolt gun or electric tongs, or in the case of poultry an electric “bath”, is a legal requirement. The theory is that if an animal is first stunned it will not then feel pain as its throat is cut.
However, the question of banning religious slaughter applies with much greater urgency to Jewish than to Muslim slaughter. Whilst the wretched sheep at the Bowood halal abattoir were not pre-stunned, the overwhelming majority of animals slaughtered for halal meat are: only 2% of cattle, 15% of sheep and goats, and 3% of poultry are not stunned before slaughter. Most Muslims, it would seem, are content with meat killed after stunning. Virtually no observant Jews would be.
So is killing without pre-stunning cruel?
It depends who you ask.
The British Veterinary Association says that it is, or at least, in the slightly mealy-mouthed words of BVA President John Blackwell, that it “has a significant welfare impact at the end of an animal’s life.” And in 2003 the Farm Animal Welfare Council voiced grave concerns, not least because scientific research seems to show that animals slaughtered without pre-stunning take longer to become insensible to pain:
“Loss of sensibility post-cut can be detected by observing brain function through electroencephalographic methodology – a lack of response indicating certain insensibility or death. The scientific evidence shows that sheep become insensible within 5-7 seconds of the cut (3-7 seconds in goats). Adult cattle, however, may take between 22 and 40 seconds to become insensible. This period may be extended should occlusion of the carotid arteries take place. Work done on calves has shown a variation in period to insensibility from 10-120 seconds depending on the extent of occlusion of the carotid arteries or ballooning in blood vessels. Furthermore, a separate study of brain response
after Shechita slaughter of cattle compared to that after captive-bolt stunning indicated responses for up to 60 seconds in the former and no response in the latter. (The difference in the times to loss of sensibility between the various species is due to anatomical differences in the blood supply to the brain).”
In a recent House of Lords debate Lord Trees (himself a veterinary surgeon) quoted an email he had received from a Jewish vet:
“Without a doubt, during my almost twenty years as a vet, I have never witnessed anything as horrific as Shechita slaughter. That horror lives fresh in my mind today and having been raised and now living in a Kosher home I do not and never have eaten a piece of Kosher meat since the day I witnessed this barbaric practice. Indeed I have seen much suffering and many severe injuries in the animals I have treated over the years, but nothing comes close to the unnecessary and brutal suffering that these animals experience at the very end of their lives.”
An example of how horrific it can be was revealed by a “PETA” (“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”) investigation into the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse at Postville, Iowa in 2004. The video is available online, although I should warn you that although I do not consider myself squeamish I was able to watch only a few seconds. PETA witnessed
“300 instances of inhumane slaughter, in which cows’ sensitive faces were shocked with electric prods, fully conscious cattle had their tracheas and esophagi ripped from their throats with meat hooks or knives, and they writhed in pools of their own blood, trying desperately to stand up for up to three minutes as blood poured from their throats.”
Of course, it would be grotesquely unfair to suggest that most shechita is anything like this. Indeed, PETA itself makes the point that “when performed properly, shechita appears all but painless and quickly renders the animal unconscious.”
In the same House of Lords debate the fertility expert Lord Winston pointed out that the science was far from settled:
“Of course animals may move after the brain is severed but the brain itself does not perceive pain if it is damaged and, in fact, none of the organs below the skin has pain fibres. You have some pain fibres in your trachea but they are very small. The evidence that animals suffer severe pain after one cut with an extremely sharp knife is extremely arguable. The truth is that, once you are unconscious, nobody knows what the perception of death or pain is.”
Moreover, one does not actually need to look to religious slaughter to find abominable cruelty. Stunning may be all very well in theory. In practice, while it may be possible to kill a single animal relatively humanely, the industrialised slaughter of millions, with or without stunning is likely to involve considerable pain and suffering.
For example, it is suggested by DEFRA that cows should be stunned with a captive bolt gun. When used properly, according to the European Food Safety Panel, such an instrument results in an effective stun, but:
“4% of stuns can be improper, often due to insufficient head restraint, wrong position of the operator, inadequate maintenance of the gun or bad quality of the cartridges.”
If not stunned properly, a cow may be conscious, or become conscious during the next stage of slaughter, as a chain is attached to its leg and it is hoisted into the air before having its neck slashed. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation:
“The person assessing insensibility should concentrate on looking at the head and ignore kicking limbs. Gasping is permissible: it is a sign of a dying brain. If the tongue is hanging straight down, limp and floppy, the animal is definitely stunned: if it is curled this is a sign of possible sensibility.”
In reality, are such observations really possible in a busy slaughterhouse, or are we deluding ourselves? With the conveyor chains clanking and the next beast queuing to be stunned, how many slaughtermen are able to ignore the frantically kicking limbs and the gasping, while noting whether the tongue is floppy or curling?
Approximately 2.6 million cows are slaughtered in the UK. Even if all of them were stunned by this preferred method, if the EFSP’s figures are right it would still mean that well over 100,000 cows would not be stunned properly.
Government figures on mis-stunning have an air of complete unreality. In 2014 the Food Standards Agency received just 4 reports of cows, and none of any other animals, being mis-stunned. Earlier years had similarly unbelievably low rates. On the other hand based on extrapolations of figures for known mis-stunnings in a small number of randomly selected slaughterhouses, Animal Aid estimates the total annual number of mis-stunnings to be close to 400,000.
It does not take very long to find video footage, usually by Animal Aid, of cruelty taking place in conventional slaughterhouses. This, from the A & G Barber slaughterhouse in 2010: clearly terrified pigs are prodded and goaded with electric tongs. This from a Soil Association approved slaughterhouse in Sturminster Newton, showing cows undergoing anything but a quick and clean ending; it will have been scant consolation to them that it was at least an “organic” one.
In conventional slaughter poultry are generally shackled upside down by their legs to a conveyor belt, which is meant to dunk them head first into an electrified bath.
“Electrical water bath stunning systems require the uncrating and shackling of live birds prior to stunning. It is likely that these handling procedures impose a considerable stress on the birds, particularly turkeys because of their large size. Besides this inevitable stress, there are other welfare concerns with existing electrical stunning systems that need to be addressed. Firstly, prestunning electric shocks can occur if the birds’ wings make contact with the water bath before their heads do. Once again, this is more of a potential problem with turkeys than with chickens. This problem occurs because the wings of turkeys hang lower than their heads when they are hung inverted from the shackle. A survey of turkey processing plants in the U.K. showed that birds at five of the six plants and, on average 43% … of all birds, received prestun electric shocks.”1
The shechita slaughter of poultry, it should be pointed out, is done by hand, with no shackling and hanging of living birds.
And of course, slaughter is only one – and perhaps not even the worst – part of a farm animal’s life. Pigs and chickens, in particular are often kept in overcrowded and cruel conditions. Transport to market can be gruelling.
So what should be done? Tighter regulations (which inevitably mean higher food prices) may help. Compulsory CCTV in all slaughterhouses might be a deterrent to the most egregious cruelties.
But a ban on religious slaughter? It misses the point. As far as Islamic slaughter is concerned there is little reason for it to be performed in any significantly different way from ordinary slaughter. Stunning is generally permitted and the only real difference between most halal slaughter and conventional slaughter is the religion of the throat cutter, something which is of minimal significance to the animal.
As for shechita, it may well be theoretically crueller than slaughter after stunning, although some would dispute it. In practice, however, far more surely depends on the personnel involved in the slaughter than on whether or not pre-stunning takes place. Horrible shechita exists, as does horrible conventional slaughter. All slaughter is unpleasant and some of it is unquestionably cruel. Inadequate pre-stunning merely adds painful electric shocks or blows to the head to the other torments inflicted on a doomed animal, while even effective stunning does nothing, in itself, to alleviate the stress, discomfort and fear that animals are likely to suffer – and that non-religious meat eaters accept – even in the kindest slaughterhouses. So to ban shechita while allowing conventional slaughterhouses to operate would be to ban a practice of huge religious significance for the Jewish community while overlooking the industrialised cruelty involved in producing cheap meat for everyone else. It would be hard to imagine a better example of hypocrisy.
It may well be that a ban on religious slaughter would be found to be breach Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the freedom to manifest one’s religion. It would certainly amount to an interference with that freedom.2
Of course, in the event of a ban observant Jews could import kosher meat from abroad (until that too was banned). Or they could go vegetarian. Or they could emigrate. The minority of Muslims who object to pre-stunning on religious grounds could do likewise. But why should they change their eating habits to accommodate the double standards of the majority?
Those of us who eat meat have choices.
We can say that we don’t want to inflict any cruelty on animals and give up eating meat as well as wearing leather; and probably give up eggs and dairy produce too (if you want to carry on eating cheese you’d better come up with a way of dealing with all those unwanted bulls as they grow up).
Or we can accept that its production has a nasty and even cruel side, what John Blackwell calls “a significant welfare impact,” and continue to eat it anyway, accepting that nastiness and even cruelty is a price we have to pay for eating meat.
Or we can continue to do what most meat eaters do, which is not to think very much about how the farm animals in the fields get to our dinner plates; to pretend to ourselves, in other words, that the process does not involve stomach-churning horrors.
Shechita slaughter accounts for a tiny proportion of overall slaughter in the United Kingdom: about 3% of cows and less than 1% of poultry and sheep.
What we should not do is try to assuage our own feelings of guilt about the treatment of animals by banning a practice that is peripheral to the problem of animal welfare but central to the lives of a religious minority.