Ritual Slaughter and Animal Welfare

Quite a few people thought I should talk about the Independent’s story: Denmark banning kosher and halal meat. 

One of the people who thought I should talk about it was my cousin who’s currently doing a PhD in philosophy. Understanding somebody else’s PhD topic is always tricky, but to my knowledge, she’s investigating the rights of minority groups, e.g. religions, in liberal societies. There’s a fundamental conflict in a society which likes to believe everyone has the right to practice their beliefs when those beliefs might compromise the rights of others in the society. Whose rights should be most protected?

Now I am neither Muslim nor Jewish, I’m a staunch atheist. I’ll talk about this as objectively I can, and it’s not my intent to insult anyone.

Firstly – Halal meat is meat killed in accordance with Islamic laws. The animal is slaughtered in the Dhabīḥah  method which involved the animal’s carotid artery being slit and the aim of this is to kill the animal as quickly as possible to reduce suffering. It’s important to note this – for years halal was considered good welfare. The law is there to promote good welfare as traditionally, Allah wants us to look after the animals.

Jewish dietary law is called kashrut, and foods which obey these laws are kosher. Only clean animals may be eaten and clean animals are cloven hoofed cud-chewers (ruminants), but not animals which digest in the hind gut or do not have a cloven hoof. There’s a list of flying animals that it is not okay to eat, such as birds of prey, bats, fish-eating birds, and you can only eat sea-dwelling animals that have both fins and scales. Incidentally, and in the light of my last post, I do have a Jewish friend who likes to point out that giraffes are kosher. Poor Marius never stood a chance in Denmark. The ritual slaughter of kosher animals is similar to halal, a precise cut to the throat severing the carotid, jugulars, vagus nerves, trachea and oesophagus. The shochet, the man who kills the animals, traditionally should be a good Jewish man with great respect for the religion, and therefore a respect for the suffering of the animals.

Both of these methods promote good care of the animals, respect for the animal being slaughtered, and – and I think this is really important – traceability of meat. They both tick a lot of my boxes. They protect human interest by showing due care and attention to the food chain and food hygiene, and they protect the animal’s interest by showing them respect and killing them in what is perceived to be the best way of avoiding suffering.

So why do Denmark have concerns over halal and kosher meat?

I expect it’s to do with the lack of stunning. Gregory et al (2009) compared three forms of killing beef cattle by investigating the blood found in the trachea. They compared shechita (no bolt stunning beforehand), halal (no bolt stunning beforehand) and bolt stunning plus ‘sticking’ (the method of slaughter is mechanically the same but because it is stunned beforehand and there’s no prayer it the religious terms are not accurate). Now note first off that this study does have a flaw in that it’s not the same person killing all these animals, because then it would not be true shechita/halal, so some of the variation here cannot be attributed to the method but the slaughterer. All three methods found animals which had blood in the trachea (the shechita slaughtered animals had the least amount of blood in the trachea with only 19% of animals showing blood there, with the 21% of the stuck animals showing blood and 58% of the halal animals). The blood reached down as far as the upper bronchi (indicating quite a lot of aspiration of the blood, e.g. the animal was sucking down a breath of blood) in 36% of the shechita animals, 69% of the halal and 31% of the stuck animals. There was a bright bloody foam in the in the trachea of some of the animals (indicating air being forced through the blood) in 10% of the shechita, 19% of the halal and 0% of the stunned animals. The authors concluded that the animals killed without stunning could suffer a welfare challenge from the inhalation of blood before they lose consciousness.

In 2010, Gregory et al looked at how quickly halal slaughtered cattle collapsed after the cut was made. 14% of the animals studied stood again after collapsing. This demonstrates that consciousness is not lost, and so the method, wonderful though its intent may be, does not work as it should.

Another interesting religious dietary law is that Sikhs cannot eat either halal or kosher meat. Sikhs believe that ritual slaughter which involves prayer and a protracted death is an unnecessary level of ritualism and isn’t appropriate. Instead they slaughter their meat animals using the jhatka method which should completely sever the head from the body of the animal in one blow, minimising suffering. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find out if Denmark still allows jhakta meat, please let me know if you have info on this).

The EU has a directive on animal slaughter which requires stunning unless the member state wants to exempt a religious group from the directives rules. Denmark has decided no longer to allow this exemption for religious groups. Some papers have looked at what it would take to have Islam accept stunning as part of halal slaughter (Nakyinsige et al, 2013, spoilers – there are ways to have halal meat with stunning)

But! I just want to point out one last thing. When we’re assessing welfare in slaughterhouses, we use ‘success of stunning’ as a welfare measure (Grandin, 2001, Grandin, 2010). Stunning is not the end to all slaughter related welfare problems. Who has the right to tell religious groups what they can and cannot do? Well I have a personal opinion about that, but I think that science’s role in this debate is to investigate welfare indicators, to find reliable and safe methods of slaughter, and not to forget that many of these dietary rules come from a desire to protect welfare. And it is my job as a member of my society to say I’m worried about animal welfare at slaughter.

One last thing. While I’m concerned about halal, kosher and even jhakta meat, I have eaten the first two and would eat the third. I’m considering making a goat curry and the local butcher who does goat is a halal butcher. But I rarely ever buy Danish bacon. In part because I want to support the British pork industry, but in part because I have welfare concerns about the farming of Danish bacon. Rightly or wrongly, I have more concern over the policy differences between my country and Denmark, than I do over ritually slaughtered meat. I wonder how right I am about that.

Edited to Add – An acquaintance of mine with more experience on the slaughter side of animal welfare had a few good points to make about this article, which I will share here.

  • There’s a difference between small ruminants and large ruminants in using cut-throat slaughter. Smaller animals tend to lose consciousness within 8 seconds and so the worries about consciousness and suffering that Gregory et al raise are less of a concern for my goat curry (I am making that goat curry soon – I can taste it already . . .)
  • And two – the animal’s life before slaughter is such an important component of animal welfare that my last point may be misleading for the layperson. We need lots of research on slaughter, all forms of it, but how we care for food-production animals in their lives is one of the biggest welfare challenges facing our society.

A Surplus of Giraffes

As a welfare scientist, it’s remiss of me not to discuss the fate of Marius the giraffe.

Copenhagen zoo killed one of their giraffes, dissected it in public, then fed it to their lions.

Or, if you prefer a second interpretation: Copenhagen zoo, who believe that they should keep their animals as naturally as possible, and allow them to fulfil their natural behaviours such as mating, getting pregnant, giving birth, etc. decided to control their breeding population by removing an animal with replicated genes, killing him humanely, furthering the education of the public, and then provide the lions a little bit of enrichment to ensure the death wasn’t needless.

It is undoubtedly a complicated and emotive issue.

I was recently directed towards the Animal Ethics Matrix which, once registered, gives you a short test to determine your philosophy with regards to animals. I am strongly utilitarian in my view of animal welfare, as I am in my view of human welfare, politics, life and everything else. I was raised a Trekkie, after all, and the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few. With this caveat, I would like to dissect this ethical dilemma from my utilitarian, animal behaviour scientist viewpoint. You need not agree with me, because our own ethics are all different, but let me know if you think I’m obviously wrong in some respects…

Continue reading “A Surplus of Giraffes”

Knowledge Is Free . . .

. . . But Teaching is Priceless

Have you heard of a MOOC? It’s the latest buzzword in the further education sector and stands for Massive Open Online Course.

As part of my work I’m helping out with a few bits and pieces on one the University of Edinburgh’s MOOCs, Animal Behaviour and Welfare. (Well, you didn’t think I’d be helping on the astrophysics one, did you?)

I’m aware that I’m failing at getting a fortnightly blog out there and considering I spent the last two days sorting students, lecturing, writing KT presentations and listening to discussions about MOOCs, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the ways we can exchange knowledge with a wide audience.

The University of Edinburgh have chosen Coursera as their platform for delivering MOOCs. Each MOOC is 4-7 weeks long, is aimed at a general audience, but delivered remotely by university staff. You can take a MOOC because you’re interested in the subject, because you want to know if a subject is something you might like to study in the future, because you want to demonstrate interest in Continued Professional Development to your employer, and in some cases even to get a few university credits.

The numbers of users on these courses is staggering, with thousands of people actually finishing the course. But, like many new ideas, there is some resistance to them within the academic community.

One of the issues is: who are we really aiming these at? The user base is so huge and so diverse that trying to pitch a course can be difficult. There’s some hope that we can use these as taster sessions for our Masters courses, but if they’re interesting for someone who has the pre-requisite knowledge for a Masters course, will they be accessible enough for the layperson?

The Equine Nutrition MOOC which ran last year did end up recruiting some future Masters students, but it was also hugely successful with the horse owning populace. It is possible to strike that balance, at least for an audience with enough interest and motivation to complete the course. It’s something to be aware of – the old saying is more true than ever: Know your audience.

Another issue is the level of work involved. While they’re intended to be short courses, videos, quizzes, resources amalgamations, I’ve heard the tutors say its hard to walk away from people who want extra support. As someone who schedules ten minutes ‘I’m here to be talked to’ time at the end of every lecture, I get that. Students like to talk. They like support. And I think they deserve support. Anyone who wants to learn deserves a little attention, but when so many people want to learn, how do you split your attention? I’d be interested in knowing how internet literate these users tend to be. After establishing a user base, would it become possible to initiate users who had completed the course as forum mods? As we say on the IRC channels, half ops to our ops?

I think this might be part of the problem. Academia may have been where the internet was invented, but not all of us are wonderfully computer literate ourselves. In my experience, internet communities can be great places, but they work best when they have a strong, recognised leader (Shout out to any of my Bungie.Org friends who followed the advertising links! We all know who our fearless leader is). I could imagine MOOCs becoming great places for people to congregate, to find out information from good, recognisable sources, and to help each other learn.

But I can also see MOOCs falling victim to academia’s other big problem: where’s the money? The courses cost money to make, and the revenue path is not clear. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and I’ve come down on the idea that we have to put MOOCs under the umbrella of ‘knowledge transfer’. It’s a way of communicating structured information to a large audience, cheaply. My personal opinion (and do remember that all opinions expressed on this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers and colleagues) is that you can’t look at a MOOC as a money making exercise. But does that mean that the students can’t expect to be treated like customers?

What I can say is that the next couple of years are going to be fascinating for further education.