There is one particular aspect of animal slaughter in abattoirs that remains contentious: so-called “non-stun slaughter”.
Two religions – Islam and Judaism – insist that meat can only be eaten by believers if the killing is done without pre-stunning the animal i.e. the first injury to the animal must be the sharp knife being drawn across the neck. Many people who are concerned about animal welfare believe that this is not a humane way to kill animals: there are concerns that they feel the pain of the knife cutting their throat, and they are aware of their impending doom as the blood drains from their body.
How are animals slaughtered?
The standard form of slaughter includes “pre-stunning”: animals have no consciousness from the moment either a captive bolt is fired into the skull, or electrocuting tongs are applied across the head. EU-wide animal welfare legislation insists that this pre-stunning must be done, apart from on the occasions when religious slaughter is carried out.
This derogation from mainstream animal welfare regulations is arguably an important part of a tolerant multicultural society: minority groups are allowed to eat meat prepared in the way that they believe is correct. As some people put it, “religious freedom trumps animal welfare”.
Why isn’t it banned?
In some countries (such as Denmark and New Zealand), animal welfare concerns about non-stun slaughter have led to a complete ban of the practice but this has always been controversial, with accusations of discrimination against minorities. Unfortunately, there is an unholy alliance between animal welfare people and the far right, who indeed may be keener to be prejudiced against religious minorities.
In the UK, the British Veterinary Association is campaigning for a simple measure that is a reasonable compromise: the labelling of meat to state how the animal was slaughtered. Currently, there is no obligation to do this, allowing any surplus meat from non-stunned slaughter to be sold on the open market to consumers who are unaware of the type of death that took place.
Back in 2011,European Parliament proposals to insist on labelling of non-stun slaughtered meat were withdrawn because there was not sufficient consensus to proceed. Last month, the publication of a recent survey suggested that it may be time to review this decision. The survey interviewed 13,500 meat consumers across 27 EU Member States, with 72 per cent stating that they would like information about stunning of animals when buying meat. The BVA is clear about the correct response to this new survey: it’s time to allow customers to choose how they want their meat to be prepared. Here in Ireland, the Veterinary Ireland Animal Welfare Committee is in full agreement with this response.
However, this is contentious. When I wrote an article about it it recently at the Telegraph, commentators maintained that the BVA calls are ” based on bias and prejudice against the religions of Judaism and Islam rather than genuine concern for animal welfare”.
They then come up with the following type of arguments:
- When no-stun slaughter is done properly, it is no more painful than conventional slaughter. They claim that research supports it. The truth is that SOME research supports this, while other research does NOT support this claim.
- They claim that that because of the high volume of conventional slaughter, more animals suffer because of mis-stunning than those that undergo no-stun slaughter. So if the BVA was genuinely concerned about animal welfare, this would be their focus, instead of the religious biased focus.
My suspicion is that the real reason why people refuse to label no-stun meat is that it is inconvenient. As it stands, an entire production lane can be done for no-stun slaughter, sold for Ireland’s export trade with the “no stun” claim, and any excess can be sold on the regular market as “normal” meat
If the meat had to be labelled “no stun”, it would be more difficult to sell, so would have to be sold more cheaply.
We discussed this issue recently on the Pat Kenny Show: