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.
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8 thoughts on “Ritual Slaughter and Animal Welfare

  1. I am actually rather religious, though neither Jewish or Muslim either. My thoughts being… when the practice was developed there was no means to stun the animal. Are we supposed to stay stagnant in the past? I don’t believe so. God gave us science and the ability to learn. I feel like we’re being very closed minded if we believe he expects us to not have changed, dare I say evolved, in the past 2,000 years.

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  2. Carole Baillie

    Very interesting article! I liked reading the research you’ve done on the topic! I can’t say I know the ins and outs of halal and kosher slaughter, so it was educational. I do find it very interesting that Sikhs do not eat halal or kosher meat. Also, the statistics you found seem to show that halal was worse than shechita slaughtered animals for inhalation of blood (which I assume can somehow be a measure of suffering).

    Just to add my bit to the discussion, I think you’re right that Denmark’s concerns are to do with the lack of stunning. I assume that what we’re really concerned with regarding animal welfare and slaughter regulations is the suffering of the animal. We want to reduce or eliminate unnecessary suffering, whether that’s in rearing the livestock, transferring it to and through abattoirs, or slaughtering it. I think the argument is rather straightforward and will go something like this:

    Premise 1: It is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering.
    Premise 2: Killing animals while they are conscious causes unnecessary suffering.
    Conclusion: It is wrong to kill animals while they are conscious.

    I don’t think we’ll want to disagree with P1. We might contest P2, and argue that killing animals while they’re conscious doesn’t cause unnecessary suffering. I can think of two reasons this might be true (perhaps there are more?). Firstly, maybe it’s the case that the animal dies very quickly after its throat is slit, so it’s not really suffering that much longer than the animals that are stunned. Secondly, maybe the animal doesn’t suffer much (pain or distress) after its throat has been slit.

    Regarding the first concern, it seems like the animal is still conscious for quite a while (at least in halal). The fact that – as you noted – the animal can stand back up again shows that they do not lose consciousness immediately. Also, the fact that they continue breathing enough to inhale blood. So I think it is safe to say that objection won’t work. Regarding the second concern, does the animal suffer much? I think it probably does. I know this is very old research, I need to get up to date! But the British government’s Farm Animal Welfare Council put together a report in 1985 called Report on the Welfare of Livestock when Slaughtered by Religious Methods. It states that “The Report’s principal conclusion was that, although there was a dearth of scientific evidence to indicate at precisely what stage in the process of losing consciousness animals cease to feel pain, loss of consciousness following severance of the major blood vessels in the neck is not immediate… The up-to-date scientific evidence available and our own observations leave no doubt in our minds that religious methods of slaughter, even when carried out under ideal conditions, must result in a degree of pain, suffering and distress which does not occur in the properly stunned animal” (from Sebastian Poulter (1998) Ethnicity, Law and Human Rights: The English Experience, pp. 135-136).

    Given this, I think I have to accept the premises, and thus the conclusion, that it is wrong to kill animals when they are conscious. This is why I choose to avoid halal and kosher meat.

    However, there may be other reasons to exempt Muslims and Jews from slaughter regulations. Perhaps, for example, it is too much to expect a religious group to adapt or abandon their beliefs in the ways that humane slaughter requires. And on another note, I think we should still be quite concerned about how animals are treated in abattoirs, and how distressed they might be in the lead-up to being stunned. Slitting the throat of a goat on a farm may involve more pain, but less distress than is experienced by the cow that does not have a painful death, but is marched through an abattoir to be stunned. As you put it, “[s]tunning is not the end to all slaughter related welfare problems.”

    This is a very long-winded reply. But it’s only because it’s an interesting topic Jill!

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