Non-stun slaughter – Why not a precautionary tale?

The number of sheep and goats slaughtered without stunning has doubled in the last six years, with an estimated 3.3 million (27%) not stunned in 2017. A Food Standards Agency survey for England and Wales estimates that 184 million poultry and 21 thousand cattle were also slaughtered without an effective stun in 2017 (see VPRF Non-stun slaughter Fact File)

EU and UK law require all livestock at abattoirs to be stunned and therefore rendered unconscious and insensible to pain before slaughter. The EU uses a ‘Precautionary Principle’ for policy areas where scientific evidence may be uncertain, but there is reasonable concern for harm to environmental, human or animal health. Despite a body of scientific evidence of harm, the use of non-stun slaughter by some religious groups is allowed in the UK but non-stun slaughter is banned in several countries around the world.

The UK legislation (Welfare of Animals at Time of Killing, WATOK) requires that for non-stun slaughter, each animal has a rapid, uninterrupted cut to the neck by hand-held knife to sever both carotid arteries and jugular veins. The animal must be restrained suitably and be left still during exsanguination for a minimum defined time post-cut. The majority of red meat (63% sheep, 75% cattle) slaughtered for halal is reversibly stunned but the remainder is not. This meat, along with 70% of meat from non-stunned kosher carcasses, enters the market unlabelled.

chicken behind fence NSS slaughter fact file

Several studies have measured time to loss of consciousness (and therefore sensibility to pain and distress) through a variety of methods including loss of posture. Following non-stun slaughter and across several studies, poultry reportedly took 12-15 seconds following throat cut before signs of unconsciousness were apparent. In sheep this was between 2-14 seconds and in cattle between 11seconds in some cases over 4minutes (cattle time to collapse may be longer due to a unique alternative blood supply to the brain).

Recently there has been much public support to recognise that animals are sentient, and therefore able to suffer pain and distress. ‘We are a nation of animal lovers’ the papers declare and Ministers repeatedly emphasise our proud record of high animal welfare. With programmes such as Blue Planet capturing the imagination of the world (apparently the most viewed TV programme of 2017), and conversations around the sustainability and morality of our diets being brought into the mainstream by films such as Cowspiracy, Okja and Carnage; why is the UK struggling to agree when it comes to stunning animals before slaughter?

Lord Trees – the only Veterinarian in parliament – will ask in the House of Lords ‘what is to be done to minimise the number of animals slaughtered without stunning?’ on Wednesday 7th February 15h00

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