Farm animal transportation and slaughter

Transportation of livestock

The transportation of any animal can cause distress and suffering. This is why RSPCA standards specify that all farm animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to their point of origin and that the journey times for animals should not exceed eight hours. In fact, for some species, RSPCA welfare standards maximum journey times can be much lower.

Stunning and slaughter
While the majority of us continue to consume meat, eggs, fish and dairy, animal slaughter is an unpleasant but inescapable reality of food production. That’s why for us at RSPCA Assured, it is fundamental that this process is always performed in the most humane way possible.

There are two aspects to the slaughter process: stunning and killing. Any personnel involved in the slaughter process need to be thoroughly trained and competent.

The majority of animals in the UK are stunned before slaughter, and all animals on RSPCA Assured farms must be pre-stunned so as they are unconscious and are therefore not able to feel pain.

Large animal stunning
There are many recognised methods used to stun large animals. Any of these accepted methods can be used at RSPCA Assured abattoirs as long as they are performed correctly and by appropriately trained staff.

Penetrating captive bolt
Species: cattle, sheep and pigs.

Method: a gun is used which fires a retractable metal bolt, which causes the animal to lose consciousness immediately.

Species: sheep, calves and pigs.

Method: a large pair of tongs are used to pass an electrical current through the animal's brain causing a temporary loss of consciousness.

Scientific evidence has shown that pain disappears in animals concussed through stunning. There are also systems which pass the current through the heart as well ensuring that the animal is killed and not just stunned.

Species: pigs

Method: a concentrated mixture of gas (currently carbon dioxide) is used. The law in the UK currently states that it must be a minimum concentration of 80%.

However, in order to be RSPCA Assured the concentration must be at least 90%. This is to ensure a faster death and to make sure the animals suffer less.

When it comes to the cutting process, the animals are first shackled by one of their hind legs.

At this point, the slaughterman uses a knife to dispatch the animal. This must be done in a precise manner to ensure a quick death in which no physical pain is felt.

Poultry slaughter
Electrical stunning and killing
The birds are hung by their legs on metal shackles which move them along like a conveyor belt. This moves them along the production line to the stunning bath.

Once the bird’s head makes contact with the water, an electrical current passes through and stuns the bird.

The conveyor belt continues moving and transports the stunned birds to the mechanism where the major blood vessels in the neck are severed.

While electrical stunning and killing is still permitted in the UK and acceptable on the RSPCA Assured scheme, the majority of poultry (chickens, hens and turkeys) in the UK is now killed using gas.

Gas killing of poultry
There are different types of gas slaughter systems used in the UK. During the gas process, the birds remain in their transport crates, which are then placed into a gas system and exposed to mixtures of air and gas until death. UK law stipulates that chickens killed in this way must be killed, not just stunned. Gas killing is considered to have welfare advantages since it avoids the need to handle and 'shackle' live birds.

Non-stun slaughter in the UK
Since 1979, the stunning of livestock has been mandatory in the EU, although each member state is free to grant its own exemptions for religious reasons. Some countries such as Denmark and Belgium have opted to ban all non-stun slaughter. For the time being, non-stun slaughter is permitted in the UK on religious grounds. Working together with the British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA has written to the Defra Minister, Michael Gove MP calling for urgent action to end non-stun slaughter in England. You can view the letter and sign the petition here.

Which religions require non-stun slaughter?
In order for food to be acceptable to followers of the Jewish faith, it needs to be kosher, this simply means “proper or fit”. Followers of the Muslim faith require their food to be classed as halal which means “permissible”.

What is halal?
For meat to be classified as halal, the animal must be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter; it must be killed with a cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe. The blood is then drained out while a dedication, known as tasmiya or shahada is recited.

What is kosher?
Kosher meat, on the other hand, must be slaughtered by a “Schochet,” a ritual slaughterer. And while pre-stunning is prohibited, so too is causing animals pain. Therefore, the slaughter must be performed in a way that unconsciousness is instantaneous and death occurs almost immediately.

Can animals be stunned for ritual slaughter?
Contrary to what many people assume, most animals killed by halal methods are stunned before slaughter. To be classified as halal, an animal cannot be killed via stun, but pre-stunning can be used so long as the animal survives. In 2018, the UK Food Standards Agency suggested that almost 99% of cattle, 75% of sheep and 90% of chickens were stunned before slaughter. The FSA also revealed in February 2019 that 58% of certified Halal meat is from animals stunned before slaughter.

What is the difference between halal and non-halal meat?
A number of supermarkets including Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Morrisons, and the Co-op all sell halal lamb that has been pre-stunned. Tesco says the only difference between the halal and non-halal meat it sells is that the meat which is labelled halal received a blessing as it was killed. The HFA (Halal Food Authority) estimates that 15% of all meat slaughtered in the UK is halal compliant.

How are animals stunned for halal?
Many sheep and lambs are stunned via an electronic stun to the head, in the case of poultry it could be an electrified water bath sufficient to render them unconscious but not kill. Many Muslims consider these methods acceptable for meat to be classified as halal. There are currently no RSPCA Assured labelled halal products.

How many animals are not pre-stunned in the UK?
It is estimated that 1% of cattle, 25% of sheep and goats and 10% of poultry slaughtered in Britain are not pre-stunned. Although, a proportion of these are probably rendered insensible via stun after the cut has been made.

As an organisation that values compassion and understanding, we respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs. But we will never compromise on our mission to protect the welfare of animals.

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